In the era (or perhaps, the dawn) of #BlackLivesMatter, it is unlikely that a Democratic candidate will be able to carry the critical Black vote without making criminal justice reform central to his or her campaign. Today, Governor Martin O’Malley will present his strategy at the annual conference of the National Urban League in Fort Lauderdale.
In “A Reinvestment and Rehabilitation Framework for America’s Criminal Justice System,” Governor O’Malley breaks down his plan to “Ensure that justice is delivered for all Americans—regardless of race, class, or place,” while healing the broken relationship between citizens and local law enforcement and also reimagining “corrections” facilities as institutions where incarcerated persons are prepared for their return to society: “We will be stronger as a nation if all of our fellow Americans are able to find jobs, rebuild their lives, and have a stake in our democracy. There is no such thing as a spare American.”
The ambitious framework addresses many of the oft-repeated challenges African-Americans face in and around the criminal justice system: abuse at the hands of local law enforcement, unfair sentencing, racial disparity in administering the death penalty (which the governor wants to “abolish”), denial of rights to felons, the criminalization of mental illness and drug addiction, the school-to-prison pipeline, the privatization of the country’s prisons, broken immigration policies and the economic despair that brings many Americans into the criminal justice system in the first place. You can read the plan in full here.
The former mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland spoke exclusively to EBONY about why he’s ready to challenge structural racism and how his record of service makes him more qualified than both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to change the culture of American law enforcement.
EBONY: Do you think that the nation is ready for this type of criminal justice reform plan?
MO: I absolutely do and one of the very important things that we can establish right off the bat is to require data to be recorded that measures police-involved shootings, custodial death [and] excessive use of force… we should require every department to monitor as courtesy excessive force complaints because the things that get measured are the things that get management attention and in the past we haven’t had that standard recording in our country. And I think we especially need it now, so that all of us as citizens will know whether our departments are doing any better this week, or this year, or this month than we were before in terms of reducing excessive force, reducing discourtesy complaints [and] police involved shootings.
EBONY: You reference the high burden of proof required in prosecuting Federal civil rights cases [the plan cites the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Mike Brown as examples] and reducing those standards. How do you intend to do that?
MO: I’m a lawyer by training. I was a prosecutor and I was a defense attorney…I believe that the standard is higher than it needs to be and I think we need a more reasonable standard to allow the Justice Department to be able to investigate and to be able to handle these cases. Especially when there’s some allegation or some taint that it can not be done in an unbiased way by local authorities.
EBONY: Are you ready to tell the entire country—not just the National Urban League or the NAACP—that you are ready to make addressing racism an important part of your campaign for presidency and, if elected, your presidency?
MO: Yes, I am and it’s been an important part of my entire calling to public service throughout my life. I think Dr. King summed it up when he said that one day, this generation of Americans will be called [to respond] not only for the evil acts of bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good. I think it’s irresponsible for us as citizens not to find ways to talk about this and I think that’s especially important in the public forum of selecting the next president of the United States. And that’s something that, as the mayor of Baltimore elected when our city had become the most violent in America that I’ve had a lot of experience with. And as governor, we reduced our incarceration rate. It was at a 20 year low and we did it by reducing recidivism by 15%. We restored voting rights to 52,000 people, we eliminated the death penalty and we decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. So I’ve had a long trajectory over 15 years in a very diverse space of talking about [these things]. And I tend to talk about them in the course of this campaign because this is part of the work we need to do to address what all of us share which is a pretty brutal racial legacy of injustice in our country that’s not limited to crime and punishment. It’s everything in America whether its’ education or housing or other things and I don’t know that we can address it together unless we do find ways to talk about it with one another.
EBONY: In terms of your law enforcement policy as mayor of Baltimore, is there anything you would do differently?
MO: I wish that we had been leaders in the newer technology, both in our state and as mayor, [such as] the body cameras and the cameras [in] police cruisers. We were early implementers of putting up public safety cameras to keep public spaces safe. I wish we had been just as early and proactive in the body cameras and cameras in cruisers…I also wish that I had done a better job of institutionalizing some of the practices in terms of policing the police that were implemented during my time, that I wasn’t able to institutionalize to carry on after my time as much as I would have liked…we promised three things: to improve policing, including how we police the police, and we also promised to greatly increase drug treatment funding, which we also did and to greatly improve our interventions in the lives of our most vulnerable young people…I committed to doing 100 reverse integrity screens a year, I committed to increasing the internal affairs division, I committed to a tracking and monitoring with an early warning system that is courtesy and brutality complaints. And I assigned independent detectives for the first time to a civilian review board so they’d had the power to investigate any case independently with the police department’s internal affairs division. And under the pressure of budgets not all of those things continued at the level that they had during our time…we reduced police involved shootings to their lowest levels in modern history. The three years where the lowest level of police involved shootings were during my time as mayor.
EBONY: Many Black voters feel taken for granted by the Democratic Party. How do you think that you can make people feel enthusiastic about casting that vote, or compel those who may otherwise stay home on Election Day?
MO: I think we have to have an honest discussion about the actions we need to take in our own times to make our entire criminal justice system more just for all people. I think that was the point of the Black Lives Matter [action] at that Netroots function. That’s what we need to do as a party. We can’t campaign a large and diverse coalition if we’re not able to speak to the concerns of everyone within that coalition. As a party, we have to be able to speak and put forward the proposals and the actions that aren’t just a matter of lip service but an actual commitment to new actions base on the facts and based on what we know now about our circumstances so that we can create and application of law that is much more fair and much more equal and colorblind.
EBONY: Did you get a chance to speak to any of the protesters who participated in the Netroots protest?
MO: I wanted to afterwards. I went immediately from there into an interview with Goldie Taylor. Then I went out into the crowd. I did not get a chance to interact with the protestors one-on-one. I did not see them when I went back out in the crowd, but I did a couple of interviews afterwards where we spoke about it. When I was mayor, there was never a week when I wasn’t out doing town hall meetings. Some of the strongest support I received was from the two parts of our city: the east side and the west side. They were ones hardest hit by years of neglect and violent crime and open-air drug dealing. I’m not a stranger to these conversations.
EBONY: Would you be willing to talk with activists from that movement in the future to talk about your campaign and how you all can work together?
MO: Sure. Always. Even that day at Netroots, [I had been] having a pretty forthright conversation about these issues for the first 20 minutes [with activists who were present.] I’m glad to have that conversation one-on-one or wherever. I’m always willing to have these conversations, as I have every day of my life for 23 years serving a majority African American constituency for most of that time.
EBONY: You say that you want to increase use of police body cameras. Considering that we have seen police officers exonerated after violence was captured on camera, what do you hope the body cameras will achieve?
MO: My hope is that it will bring a greater amount of openness and transparency to the important functions of policing. That is my hope. That openness and transparency will lead to better performance of duty.
EBONY: Do you feel that you are better positioned to effect these changes in the criminal justice system than Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders?
MO: I believe I have a unique perspective to offer on this that’s very different from theirs. It comes from 23 years of service. It comes from being both a prosecutor and a defensive attorney. It comes from stepping up and being elected by every council district in my city to turn around our city with the worst violent crime problem of any major city in America. It comes [from] eight years as governor dialing up the things that work that actually reduced our incarceration rate to 20-year lows that reduced recidivism by 15 percent, by taking actions that allowed people to leave prison and not return. I do believe I’m better. I have more experience. I’m better prepared than anyone else in this field of either party to speak to these issues and most importantly to address these issues as President of the United States.
EBONY: There’s some in your party who believe that you and Bernie Sanders are challenging the woman who should be the heir apparent.
MO: Well, I’m definitely a challenger. In our party, there’s usually an inevitable front-runner right up until the very first contest. Then, in our party, usually, the voice of a new generation emerges. Then the contest narrows. I am running to be president of the United States and, like many other candidates who are not very well known until the first contest, I am very focused on those three contests and making my case to our fellow Americans who live in those states of Iowa and New Hampshire, and then, after that, South Carolina and Nevada. That’s my focus. I’m clearly a challenger and she’s clearly the inevitable front-runner of the year. I believe that if we continue to run a campaign of ideas, offering the truthful and honest and bold actions we need to take in order to make our country better, I believe the people will respond to that message, as well as to the vulnerability. That’s what I intend to do. I think the challenging campaigns that succeed are those that offer the ideas that serve our country. That’s what I intend to do.
EBONY: If asked, would you consider serving as Secretary Clinton’s Vice Presidential candidate?
MO: (laughs) I’m not running for Vice President. I think that’s pretty clear.