The justice system has failed my brother. We must do better.
On November 18, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt granted clemency to Julius Jones hours before his scheduled execution for the 1999 murder of Paul Howell, a businessman from Edmond, Oklahoma. Jones, his family, celebrities, left and right activists and many other supporters in the United States and abroad insisted that he did not commit the crime. The case has been plagued by many issues that underscore the need for fundamental reforms within the criminal justice system, ranging from the need to provide low-income defendants with quality legal representation to the selection of representative panels of jurors. racially when examining the resulting disparities in sentencing. a disproportionate number of people of color face the death penalty or longer sentences and stiffer fines.
African-American men are on death row at a much higher rate than their number in society. Forty-one percent of all death row inmates in the United States are African-American, although blacks make up only 13.4% of the country’s population. Twenty-seven states, including my home in Georgia, still allows capital punishment. It is a relic of the past that has survived modern advances in governance and the way society deals with unwanted social behavior.
As tragic and barbaric as the death penalty may be, equally is the failure of the criminal justice system to reform bad behavior and rehabilitate individuals to become productive citizens who could contribute to society. devastating. For me, this problem is more than theoretical: it involves a member of my own family, my brother Jeff.
Julius Jones, whose death sentence was commuted to life in prison without parole, was 19 when the carjacking death he was convicted of occurred. He was only a year older than my brother Jeffrey Lewis, affectionately known by his friends “Bodine”. Jeff was 18 when he was convicted of hijacking a car and taking it for a ride. Thank goodness no one was hurt, but because he had previously been convicted and served time in a reform school, this crime was the tipping point that sent him for years to the Missouri State Penitentiary.
This is where we go wrong with our criminal justice system: we send stupid, underdeveloped young people who commit thoughtless crimes into institutions that offer no chance for them to be rehabilitated. Many of these young people, like my brother, come from underprivileged backgrounds where they have had to swim against the tide all their lives.
When Jeff was released from prison after a few years, he had neither a high school diploma nor professional skills. He also had to disclose on job applications that he had a criminal record. Once potential employers found out about him, they were less likely to give him a job. Without a job, he was on the streets again committing crimes, and soon back in prison.
Some of my fondest memories of Bodine are captured in letters he wrote to me from prison asking for money to buy basketball shoes, cigarettes and the like. He told me he was proud of me and wanted to take his life back and do something for himself. I guessed in the tone of his letters both shame and remorse. I wish I could have done more – the money from the cigarettes and the sneakers would soon be spent, and then what would he have left?
When Julius Jones gave what he thought he was then his last words, he told a reporter, âI’m sorry I was a bad boy. I’m sorry I made mistakes. But you know I’m not a killer. I am not a murderer. The part of the statement that struck me the most was his reference to being “a bad kid”. Too many black, brown, and low-income children are caught up in the criminal justice system at an early age and can never escape its grip. Jeff wasn’t inherently bad, but he found himself trapped in a very bad system from a young age.
Once condemned, he begins a slow but certain march towards death. On his final release, he was in his thirties and ill-equipped to function in society. For most of his adult life all he had seen or heard were the gray interior walls of the prison and the clicking noises of steel as the doors of the prison bars opened and closed. closed. It was in storage for many years, and when it got out it was a lot worse off than when it got in.
For over a decade, he was estranged from our family; no one has seen or heard of him. I can imagine my mom must have felt like she had a missing child that she didn’t know was dead or alive.
After years, we concluded that we might not see Jeff alive again. Then one day in 2010 the phone rang and an unknown person told me the terrible news of Jeff’s death. Apparently, she had recently attended a memorial service for him in Kansas City, chaired by a pastor known for his ministry to the homeless. I contacted the minister to thank him and ask him to fill in some unknown details from the latter part of Jeff’s life. He confirmed that during part of this period Jeff was homeless, but the Minister had not seen him for some time and was unsure of the whereabouts of his remains.
I frantically called the Kansas City medical examiner’s office looking for Jeff’s body or cause of death information. I spoke directly to the medical examiner, and he had no information. He suggested that I try calling the morgues at some of the larger hospitals in the area.
I followed this advice, which luckily led me to discover Jeff’s body. He died of pneumonia on July 1. His body had not been claimed and had been frozen in a hospital morgue for about a month. The cremation was scheduled for the next working day. I asked that they send me his remains. In about a week, his ashes arrived in a polythene bag inside a thick black box that served as an urn.
Our mother was so upset that she didn’t want her remains anymore, so I put half of the ashes in the Atlantic Ocean so they could return to Africa. The other half, I kept it for no reason that I know of at the time. Then, almost a decade later, I was contacted by her daughter – someone I didn’t know existed – looking for photographs and any information I could share with her about her father. I gave him the other half of the leftovers I had kept all these years.
It would be unfair to blame all of Jeff’s woes on the criminal justice system, but I firmly believe that if there had been alternative forms of punishment to incarceration, he might have had a fighting chance. If he had been able to afford a good lawyer, he might have been able to avoid serving a prison sentence altogether. If the sanctions were influenced by the nature crimes rather than amount Among them, Jeff could have served his sentence in another type of institution where he could have obtained a high school equivalency diploma, job skills and placement assistance.
He loved to cook, and I’m inclined to believe that in the right institution he could have honed his skills in the culinary arts. If he didn’t have to tick a box indicating he had been convicted of a felony, he might have found a job in time to make a difference in his life. More than that, if after paying his debt to the company, Jeff had been able to vote for the candidates of his choice, he would have been a citizen again.
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