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The Justice System Failed My Brother. We Need to Do Better.

Too many lives that could be turned around are being wasted. We should be reforming and rehabilitating the people we lock away, giving them the opportunity to become productive citizens.

The Missouri State Penitentiary
The author’s brother served a sentence at the Missouri State Penitentiary after hijacking a car for a joyride.
(Missouri State Penitentiary/Facebook)
On Nov. 18, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt granted clemency to Julius Jones hours before he was scheduled to be executed for the 1999 killing of Paul Howell, an Edmond, Okla., businessman. Jones, his family, celebrities, activists from both the left and right, and many other supporters in the United States and abroad insisted that he did not commit the crime. The case has been plagued with many problems that point to the need for fundamental reforms within the criminal justice system, ranging from the need to provide low-income defendants with quality legal representation to selecting racially representative jury pools to looking at disparities in sentencing that result in a disproportionate number of people of color receiving the death penalty or longer sentences and stiffer fines.

African American men are on death row at a far higher proportion than their numbers in society. Forty-one percent of all death row inmates in the U.S. are African American, although Blacks constitute only 13.4 percent of the nation’s population. Twenty-seven states, including my home of Georgia, still authorize capital punishment. It is a relic from the past that has survived modern advancements in governing and how society deals with undesirable social behavior.

As tragic and barbaric as the death penalty may be, the way the criminal justice system fails to reform bad behavior and rehabilitate individuals to become productive citizens who could contribute to society is equally 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-related death he was convicted of occurred. He was just a year older than my brother Jeffrey Lewis, referred to affectionately by his friends as “Bodine.” Jeff was 18 when he was convicted of hijacking a car and taking it on a joyride. Thank God no one was injured, but because he had a previous conviction and had served time in reform school, this crime was the tipping point that sent him off for years to the Missouri State Penitentiary.

This is where we go wrong in our criminal justice system: We send foolish, underdeveloped youngsters who commit thoughtless crimes off to institutions that offer no chance for them to be rehabilitated. Many of these young people, like my brother, come from impoverished environments where they have had to swim upstream against the currents all their lives.

When Jeff got out of prison after a few years, he had neither a high school diploma nor workforce skills. He also had to disclose on job applications that he had a criminal record. Once potential employers found this out, they were less likely to give him a job. Without a job, he was back on the street again committing crimes, and then soon back in prison.

Some of my most cherished memories of Bodine are captured in letters he wrote me from jail asking for money to buy basketball shoes, cigarettes and the like. He told me he was proud of me and that he wanted to get his life together and make something of himself. I surmised in the tone of his letters both shame and remorse. I wish I could have done more — the cigarettes and sneakers money would soon be spent, and then what would he have left?

When Julius Jones gave what at the time he thought were his last words, he told a reporter: “I’m sorry I was a bad kid. I am 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 kids get caught up in the criminal justice system at an early age and are never able to escape its grasp. Jeff was not intrinsically bad, but he got trapped in a very bad system at an early age.

Jeffrey “Bodine” Lewis with his younger brother.
Jeffrey “Bodine” Lewis with his younger brother (family photo).
Once sentenced, he began a slow but certain march to death. Upon his release for good, he was in his 30s and ill-equipped to function in society. For most of his early adult life, all he had seen or heard were the gray inside walls of prison and the clanking sounds of steel as the prison bar doors were opened and slammed closed. He was warehoused for many years, and when he came out, he was much worse off than when he went in.

For more than a decade he became estranged from our family; no one saw or heard from him. I can imagine my mother must have felt like she had a missing child who she didn’t know was dead or alive.

After years had passed, we concluded that we might not see Jeff alive again. Then one day in 2010 the phone rang and an unknown female caller gave me the dreadful news that Jeff had died. Apparently, she had recently attended a memorial service for him in Kansas City, presided over 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 of the later part of Jeff’s life. He confirmed that for part of this time Jeff was homeless, but the minister had not seen him for a while and didn’t know the whereabouts of his remains.

I frantically called the Kansas City medical examiner’s office in search of Jeff’s body or information about the cause of death. I spoke to the medical examiner directly, and he had no information. He suggested that I might try calling the morgues of some of the larger hospitals in the area.

I followed this advice, which fortunately led me to discover Jeff’s body. He had died from pneumonia on July 1. His body had remained unclaimed and frozen in a hospital morgue for approximately a month. Cremation was scheduled for the next workday. I asked that they send me his remains. Within a week or so his ashes arrived in a polyethylene bag inside a thick black box that served as an urn.

Our mother was so distraught that she did not want any of his remains, so I deposited half of the ashes in the Atlantic Ocean so they could flow back to Africa. The other half I kept for no reason known to me at the time. Then, nearly a decade later, I was contacted by his daughter — someone I hadn’t known existed — looking for photographs and any information I could share with her about her dad. I gave her the other half of the remains I had kept all those years.

It would be unfair to blame all of Jeff’s misfortunes on the criminal justice system, but I strongly believe that if there were alternative forms of punishment to incarceration, he might have had a fighting chance. If he could have afforded a good lawyer, he possibly would have been able to avoid serving time in prison altogether. If penalties were influenced by the nature of the crimes rather than the quantity of them, Jeff might have been able to serve his time in a different type of facility where he could have received a high school equivalency degree, workforce skills and help with job placement.

He loved to cook, and I am inclined to believe that in the right institution he could have honed his skills in the culinary arts. If he didn’t have to check a box indicating that he had been convicted of a crime, he might have found a job in time to have made a difference in his life. More than this, if after Jeff had paid his debt to society he could have voted for the candidates of his choice, he would have been a citizen again.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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