No Justice, No Freedom

Abolition for the People

Criminal Justice Reform Cost Me 21 Years of My Life

President Clinton’s infamous 1994 crime bill is just one example of why reform never goes far enough — and often only exacerbates issues it’s meant to solve

This article is part of Abolition for the People, a series brought to you by a partnership between Kaepernick Publishing and LEVEL, a Medium publication for and about the lives of Black and Brown men. The series, which comprises 30 essays and conversations over four weeks, points to the crucial conclusion that policing and prisons are not solutions for the issues and people the state deems social problems — and calls for a future that puts justice and the needs of the community first.

In 1994, New York State convicted me of a murder I didn’t commit. Like countless others, I was found guilty of causing harm, when in fact I was victimized by a system that often uses fabricated evidence to fill prison cells with Black men just like me.

For 21 years, I languished in prison, my time stolen by Bill Clinton’s infamous 1994 crime bill. The legislation was publicized as a much-needed reform to get drugs off the street — but like so many other reform efforts framed as ways to make our criminal legal system fair and equal for all, it gave police and the prison system the means to incarcerate people without concern for justice itself.

In 2015, I was exonerated. Some years previous, a woman whose testimony had helped secure my conviction recanted it, claiming that one of the investigating detectives had coerced her into testifying. (The same detective, Louis Scarcella, has had 16 cases overturned.) Ultimately, a Brooklyn district attorney investigating old cases overturned my conviction.

While incarcerated, I studied law and was able to find paths to freedom not just for myself, but for other incarcerated people who had been wrongfully convicted. I learned that the average lawyer has too many cases and not enough time to litigate zealously; if I were ever to get out of prison, I realized, I would have to file motions on my own and assist my lawyers in proving my innocence. While I was incarcerated, no one else had a vested interest in me achieving this goal. This is by design.

Derrick Hamilton leaves a courthouse in the Brooklyn borough of New York, after a hearing that vacated his 1991 murder conviction on Jan. 9, 2015. Photo: Anthony Lanzilote/The New York Times/Redux

One of the most daunting hurdles I encountered as a person incarcerated by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision was the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), a 1996 bill that President Clinton signed into law. This law — also publicized as an important reform — made it the case that once a person held in a state facility has exhausted their state remedies, they can no longer pursue federal recourse unless they can prove that an unreasonable application of United States Supreme Court precedent occurred. This effectively creates an extremely narrow legal window and takes away the power of judges to release someone who they know is illegally confined.

Clinton’s 1994 and 1996 bills were essentially designed to do three things: 1) give police and government officials the tools to fight what they deemed an extended “war on drugs” in Black and Brown communities, and 2) build more prisons, particularly solitary confinement units, and 3) lock up more Black and Brown people in the process, pushing them through the difficult-to-understand criminal legal system.

For example, the 1996 bill imposed a one-year statute of limitations for filing for habeas relief. This provision created an undue burden on non-lawyers to understand the complexity of this new enactment. President Clinton’s reform law took away federal review of state court convictions to incarcerated people who perhaps have not had the luxury of years of formal legal training. They could not understand what an unreasonable application of United States precedent meant, let alone how to apply it.

I spent 10 years in segregation housing where I was confined for 23 hours a day. As long as any member of society can be treated as a slave, there will be abuse of power by the slave owner. History has taught us no less.

The so-called truth-in-sentencing bill that President Clinton signed in 1994 was publicized as a way to curb drug offenses. This gave police — both in New York City and beyond — the power to conduct illegal stop-and-frisk searches, plant evidence, and falsify reports to justify an arrest. This created a quota system in which police felt the only way to move up the ranks was to make more arrests.

We must abolish any system that permits prosecutors and judges to be protected by the 11th Amendment, which gives them immunity when they abuse their power. By holding prosecutors and judges accountable, police will then have to answer for their actions because the prosecutor or judge can’t protect them. Accountability would entail removing them from office when there is proof that they have violated their oath of candor to the courts and fairness to the accused — an ethical oath all judges and prosecutors swear to uphold.

The 13th Amendment should also be abolished because it permits and legalizes incarcerated people to be treated as slaves. Many incarcerated people became mentally ill from long years in punitive housing — myself included. I spent 10 years in segregation housing where I was confined for 23 hours a day. If we are to make a fairer society, where all people are treated fairly and with dignity, we must start with eradicating any laws and institutions that discriminate against individuals. Institutions like prisons destroy families, don’t make communities safer, and intensify poverty. As long as any member of society can be treated as a slave, there will be abuse of power by the slave owner. History has taught us no less.

Together, President Clinton’s 1994 and 1996 reform laws led to my spending 21 years in prison. In the absence of such laws, the officer that framed me for murder would not have had the powerful resources and ability to do so. He still receives a pension from New York City and has not been held accountable for any of his actions — despite the fact that dozens of his past murder cases are under investigation.

Reform may sound appealing, but we must abolish laws and institutions that have been enacted to give police and prisons more power and immunity. A society that holds everyone accountable is the only one worth living in — and is the first step toward honoring the dignity and fundamental humanity of Black and Brown people.

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