My Brother’s Keeper

“All I had to give them was an ear, a bunch of campaign material, and my pledge that I would try to do something if elected.”

Julio Cortez / AP

The small basement room of the Willie T. Wright Apartments in Newark’s Central Ward was standing-room only, packed with men of all ages, from guys barely in their 20s to men in their 50s and 60s. I scanned their faces and saw looks of hope and humility. A few seemed beaten down by circumstance but definitely not broken. If they’d been broken, they wouldn’t have been there.

As they walked in, some eagerly shook my hand. Men older than me called me “Sir” or “Councilman,” treating me with a level of deference that made me feel uncomfortable. I didn’t want any man to elevate me in even the slightest way—and especially not under these circumstances. I owed them humility and respect. What’s more, I felt an uneasiness bordering on shame about the circumstances of our meeting. But here we were, a bunch of men in a basement, hoping to defy the odds in a fixed game.

I loosened my tie, took it and my jacket off, rolled up my sleeves.

As people flowed in, the room became more and more inadequate; we were packed in close, and for some reason I thought taking off my jacket and tie would narrow the distance between us. It probably just made me feel more comfortable. I took folding chairs out from behind the table and offered them to a few of the older men so that they could sit down; my staff and I would stand. Several more men streamed in, lining up along the sides of the room and soon reaching all the way to where we were standing.

How could I have so badly miscalculated the size of the room we needed? Given what I knew, I should have booked a gym at one of the local schools.

I was 29. I had just been elected to the Central Ward council seat in an upset. I had beaten an incumbent who was more than 40 years my senior and had held the seat for 16 years. I was a year out of law school, where I had spent a lot of time sitting in classes—but not like this one. Those classes were in ivy-covered buildings, modern and comfortable, with very few black men. Those classes did not fully explore how the broken legal system damages communities such as Newark. I felt that every law-school student should see rooms like that one in the Willie T. Wright Apartments—that America should see.

I was holding the free clinic to help men learn how to expunge their records. Expungement, in the criminal-justice sense, means to clear one’s record. Some states, like New Jersey, have narrow laws that allow certain people who made a mistake to petition after a number of years to have that mistake removed so that it won’t appear in criminal-history searches. I hoped to help give the men in that basement a clean slate, to help them break out of what Michelle Alexander calls the “American caste system,” in which they were judged by their criminal past. Rather, I wanted them to be judged only by their promise and their determination to work hard and play by the rules.

I opened the clinic with introductory remarks. We had no microphone, but I spoke loud enough for people out in the hallway to hear. I thanked our hosts and my dear friends, the Cole family, who were resident leaders at this apartment complex; I introduced my staff and then the lawyers. I spoke in a serious tone. I acknowledged that the men were there because they wanted to get jobs, to provide for their families and to move on with their lives. I acknowledged how hard it was for anybody with a criminal conviction to get a job, and explained that expungement was one way to help change that.

Too many people give up, I said, and in order to make money, some go back to doing things that get them arrested again. I promised to all, those who might qualify for expungement and those who might not, that we would try to help beyond this clinic. This was only a first step. We were calling employers and looking for ones who were willing to hire the formerly incarcerated. I thanked them for not giving up.

* * *

Again, I realized that I should have known; I should have better estimated the demand for this project. I should have known because every day on the campaign trail, I heard two things from hundreds of men I talked to: I can’t get a job and I have a record. Many were candid about what they had done. Some had committed violent crimes; most had been convicted on nonviolent drug offenses.

Many times a woman would speak up for a man—a mother, sister, girlfriend, or wife would walk me through the man’s saga. She would detail how many job applications he had filled out, how many certificates he’d earned in job-training courses that went nowhere, how he couldn’t even get a fast-food restaurant to give him a chance. They detailed how the rejections were taking their toll. Some agonized about how it seemed like the system wanted them to do something wrong because it was providing no options for them to do something right.

Every day of that campaign, I had learned that my ward, which was upward of 90 percent blacks and Latinos, housed thousands of men desperate to go to work, to contribute to their families, to assert their dignity through a job—desperate for an opportunity even if it was minimum wage and manual labor. But these men were being limited by previous convictions, many of them minor.

What frustrated me was that I knew, from living in the relatively privileged communities I grew up in, that the drug war wasn’t waged in those places like it was in Newark. I was coming from college campuses and suburban towns where marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine, and other drugs were widespread and often used openly, with little fear of the police. Witnessing drug use wasn’t a rare occurrence in my life. Yet few Yale or Stanford students worried about being stopped and frisked on campus or having their homes or dorms raided by the police—in fact, I never knew of it to happen. Nor did I know of the Drug Enforcement Agency or local police raiding homes in Harrington Park or Old Tappan; there was drug use there, but the enforcement of the law was clearly different.

The war on drugs has turned out to be a war on people—and far too often a war on people of color and the poor. Marijuana use, for example, is roughly equal among blacks and whites, yet blacks are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for possession than whites; in some states they are six times more likely. In the states with the worst disparities, across all offenses blacks were 10, 15, or even 30 times more likely to be arrested than white residents in the same county.

Further, there is no difference between blacks and whites in dealing drugs. In fact, some studies show that whites are more likely than blacks to sell drugs, even though blacks are far more likely to be arrested for it. Today, about one in 10 Americans has been arrested on drug-related charges, but—despite blacks and Latinos committing drug offenses at a rate no different than whites—Latinos are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly twice the rate of whites for the same offenses, and blacks are incarcerated at six times the rate of whites.

For poor Americans, an arrest alone is enough to block them from accessing the American dream—or at least a more secure American reality. The arrest reduces employment opportunities. For example, according to the National Employment Law Project, “[T]he likelihood of a callback for an interview for an entry level position drops off by 50 percent for those applicants with an arrest or a criminal history.” And the arrest effectively reduces a person’s earnings, which minimizes his or her ability to provide for a family.

To make matters worse, when it comes to the nearly 17 million background checks done by the FBI each year for employers, approximately half of those records contain incomplete or inaccurate information. So even if a person is innocent, wrongfully arrested, or simply arrested by mistake, that mitigating resolution might not show up in a background check. And when such a mistake is not corrected, an employer is likely to pass that person over or disqualify him for employment. In fact, studies show that, as a result of inaccurate FBI records, nearly half a million Americans are in jeopardy of not obtaining a job that they would otherwise be offered, or of losing the job they already have.

While campaigning on a cold day in early 1998, I was invited into a small low-rise public-housing apartment. I sat on a couch and listened to a story I was finding increasingly familiar: a woman telling me of the stress of her husband’s long-term unemployment and its effect on their family. Her husband echoed the pain and frustration of his job search. He had been released from prison years earlier, and he detailed to me all the things he was trying to do to earn money for his family. He could occasionally find odd jobs or be picked up for some manual labor, but he couldn’t find steady work.

While they were talking, they intermittently apologized for their two adorable boys—maybe 4 and 6 years old—who were grabbing for my campaign cards, asking for buttons, reaching for my extra pens; one even climbed on my lap, where I held him and bounced him gently on my knee. This couple made me think of my parents. My brother and I were also two years apart, and how many times had our mom apologized for our curiosity and playfulness?

But there was tension in the room. I could see that the woman was overworked; her beautiful face was eclipsed with worry and strain. I could hear the pain in the man’s voice as he confirmed the circumstances his wife had laid bare before me, the stranger at their door. I wondered how that stress visited upon their kids, what it would mean for two boys to see their dad struggling. I wondered how they would fare in a criminal-justice system that set the odds so strongly against young black boys, especially given the data now showing that one in three black boys born today will be arrested in his lifetime.

Looking around the apartment, I could see it was not in great shape; it was barely adequate for a family. They made it clear they wanted to live elsewhere, that they’d be happy to get out of their apartment, if only they could afford to—if only the father had a shot at getting a job.

All I had to give them was an ear, a bunch of campaign material, and my pledge that I would try to do something if elected.

* * *

So, in the basement at the Willie T. Wright Apartments, I was making my first attempt at doing something substantive. But when one of the lawyers began to speak, it didn’t have the effect I had hoped for. Anguished faces greeted his words. Many heads dropped, and guys started to get up and leave. They couldn’t afford to waste more time in yet another dead end.

The lawyer had announced what the qualifying requirements were to get your record expunged. To begin with, the charge had to be nonviolent. Even if you had an assault charge from a bar fight with no serious injuries—fights like ones I had seen growing up—the charge could not be expunged. You could expunge only possession of drugs—but if you had an amount that was too large or if you were caught trying to sell drugs, your record could not be expunged. If you had been caught with possession more than once, your record could not be expunged. And if five years hadn’t passed since the end of your time in jail or on probation or parole, your record could not be expunged.

The room was emptying out. I quickly moved over to the door and backed into the hallway as people were slipping past me and leaving. I told the men that we would reach out to them. I repeated that we were seeking employers that might hire people with convictions. Some stopped and talked to me. One man had a large binder, and he opened it, showing me all the letters from people who would vouch for him. There were letters from clergy, one from a police officer, one from a former employer. I saw certificates of service and commendations from organizations he volunteered with. There were probably 30 pages in all.

He was angry—not at me, but his voice was full of frustration.

I remember him asking: “What is it going to take? It’s been over 10 years; what is it going to take for me to get a second chance?”

This article is adapted from Booker’s recent book, United.