Reforming our criminal-justice system is gaining bipartisan interest, yet neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton have talked about it during the presidential campaign.
The system costs taxpayers untold billions of dollars, and both liberals and conservatives have come to believe that at $50,000 per year for each inmate, it is prohibitively expensive and punitive to keep nonviolent offenders in prison for excessively long terms.
Just this past month, John Hinckley was released after 35 years in a psychiatric hospital for trying to assassinate President Reagan. Hinckley’s new freedom started me thinking about individuals who commit violent crimes and are incarcerated long past the standard prison sentence. Is there any hope for them?
Until recently, I thought every violent criminal except a murderer should be considered redeemable. Then I met Ricardo Salmona, a successful and gentle New Yorker who has fought the criminal-justice system for 30 years on behalf of his brother, Harlan.
In 1988, Harlan, 28, and his best friend, Bob Gosnell, were co-defendants in a marijuana-smuggling trial off the Florida Keys. Harlan murdered Bob under disputed circumstances. He was convicted and has served 27 years in prison with a spotless record. Were he to be granted a pardon and freed from prison, he has a family that would support him financially and network of friends that would support him emotionally.
Additionally, two not-for-profit addiction facilities in Miami and New York have expressed interest in hiring Harlan as part of their “Scared Straight” programs, which help teens decide to take a positive path in life.
Most compelling to me is what Lee Gosnell, brother of the murder victim, wrote in March 2012: “My brother cannot speak for himself, but knowing him closely as I did, I believe that he would say Harlan has suffered enough. I don’t believe Harlan would be a danger to anyone, actually quite the contrary. …
“It is important to me that something good comes from my brother’s death. Knowing that Harlan is helping others to follow the right path in life would lift the burden of the loss of my brother.
“Enough is enough.”
Harlan’s testimony for the U.S. attorney helped to convict the Cabrera brothers’ smuggling ring. Along the way, in an attempt to please the prosecutors, Harlan committed perjury. Harlan was a sketchy person to be sure, but it was 30 years ago.
So I am asking: Is there a place in our justice system where cases can be looked at individually with regard to compassion and mercy, yet factoring in the events of the case, and with the aim of responsibly releasing prisoners back into society?
We believe ourselves to be a compassionate country. But how do we square that with the fact that with 5 percent of the world’s population, we have 24 percent of the world’s prisoners? In a 2012 article in The New Yorker, “The Caging of America,” Adam Gopnik writes: “Over all, there are now more people under correctional supervision; in America — more than 6 million — than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.”
That is an awfully low bar to which we should not aspire. We love stories to go with our athletes and political candidates. Have we become so hardened that we cannot look at the story of individual human life in the criminal justice system?
Harlan can be released by a vote of the Florida Cabinet. As a former officeholder, I know that is not an easy vote to make. After all, why risk your political career on the potential actions of a convicted murderer? I am not sure I would, and maybe we should not put elected officials in that position.
An independent commission appointed by elected officials could look at cases objectively, yet it would still keep accountability in the process. Harlan’s story is one of many, but his story is the one I know. I tell it with the hope that we can start to discuss the important question of when “Enough is enough.”
Mike Abrams is former chairman of the Dade Democratic Party, a former state legislator and currently a policy adviser to Ballard Partners.