He has one of the most glittering resumes in the security business. The president of the United States said so himself when he tapped Bernard Kerik for one of the top posts in his administration.
Kerik never got the job. Revelations of tax fraud and corruption landed him in court and then in prison. And those 36 months on the other side of the bars have transformed Kerik’s views of America’s criminal justice system.
“If we continue to incarcerate black men at the same rate we have for the last 30 years, 30 years from now, probably 75 percent of every black man in this country is going to be incarcerated,” Kerik told “America Tonight.” “Is that what we want? Is that what the system was created for? The system is broken.”
Crime-fighting his way to the top
Kerik knows the justice system from many sides. He’s been a military police officer, a warden, a beat cop and commissioner of the New York City Department of Corrections, where he oversaw 16 jails, including Rikers Island. In 2000, he was named New York City police commissioner. In 2001, he helped then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani lead the city’s badly shaken police officers and firefighters out of the rubble of the 9/11 attacks. In 2003, the George W. Bush administration appointed him as Iraq’s interim minister of interior.
And then, in 2004, the president nominated Kerik to lead the Department of Homeland Security.
“And I believe rightfully so,” said Kerik. “I think I could have done a great job. I know I could have done a great job. My background and history speaks for itself.”
The ascent was all the more staggering given Kerik’s starting point. His mother was an alcoholic prostitute murdered by her pimp. Kerik was a high school dropout, who later went back to get his GED.
“And one day I’m standing in the Oval Office with the president of the United States … He’s asking if I’d like a job. And he wanted me for that job,” said Kerik. “Which is sometimes very insane when I think about it, given where I came from. But this is America. And you know, that’s what happens in America.”
Now, if he were to advise someone nominated for a top administration spot, he has a different take: “Don’t do it.”
Top cop to criminal
Almost as quickly as he was anointed, Kerik was nailed on allegations that he had hired a nanny who carried phony documents and was tarred with whispered allegations of ties to shady contractors, even organized crime. He was forced to withdraw his nomination.
“Listen, everybody has skeletons in your closet,” he said. “What happens when you become the target of the political arena, in a circumstance like this, it can be quite devastating.”
In 2009, the former top cop copped pleas to eight felony tax and false-statement charges, including lying to the White House. He was sent to a federal minimum-security prison in Cumberland, Md.
“People in the press, they get a kick out of it,” Kerik said. “‘Club Fed, country club.’ You know what, go live there … Don’t tell me it’s some luxurious country club. It’s not. It’s prison.”
Kerik’s three years as an inmate gave him a new perspective on the world of criminal justice, where he’d spent his entire career. He now firmly believes that America locks too many people up.
“When you put someone in prison because he was a commercial fisherman who caught too many fish or because someone enhanced their income in a mortgage application to buy their first home … I met those people,” he said.
“I also met young black men and Hispanic men out of urban America that were sentenced to 10 years, and 15, and 20 years for first-time nonviolent drug offenses,” he continued. “Ten years for a kid who sells, or buys, or possesses 5 grams of cocaine? Five grams is the weight of three sugar packets from Dunkin’ Donuts. You’re putting a kid in prison for 10 years?”
Kerik’s short stint in solitary confinement has also made him a staunch opponent of the practice.
“It’s mentally abusive,” he said. “You hallucinate. You talk to yourself. It breaks down the mental psyche. It’s inhumane in many ways.”
Kerik believes his background, from crime fighter to inmate, makes him uniquely positioned to advocate for reform. The question is simply whether people will listen.
“Today I’m a convicted felon,” he said. “There aren’t that many second chances for convicted felons. So I don’t know what that next act is. I can’t say. I don’t know.”