As Hillary Clinton regaled an audience with a soul-stirring speech on race and opportunity in America today, inmate #0000950785 sat alone in Georgia prison cellblock.
Known as “Little B” on the street, Michael Lewis was 13 years old and less than 5 feet tall the day he was checked into an adult correctional facility. That was nearly 20 years ago and, although he is up for parole review again in 2016, it remains doubtful that the now-32-year-old will ever see the light of day.
Serving a life sentence for first-degree murder, Lewis likely cannot recite the names of the people who put him behind bars. He surely remembers Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, who had been just elected the first black district attorney in Georgia and who made the decision to try the diminutive teenager as an adult. However, it is improbable that he can recall the names of the federal lawmakers who voted in favor of the 1994 crime bill and successive pieces of supporting legislation or the state elected officials, including Gov. Zell Miller, who decided a 13-year-old could be tried as an adult.
In 1997, convicted in the shotgun killing of an Atlanta man, Lewis was among thousands of black children who were labeled “super-predators.”
Lewis has probably never heard of Sen. Bernie Sanders and is likely unaware that he and then-First Lady Hillary Clinton both supported the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. But it wasn’t the 1994 crime bill that put Lewis in an adult prison for a shooting many say he did not commit. (Lewis has maintained his innocence and many of the initial witnesses have recanted.) It was the mood sweeping the country that inspired the comprehensive legislative package and others like it that passed at the state level.
There was, beginning in the early 1990s, a constant drum beat for mandatory minimums, federal dollars flowing to local governments to hire 100,000 police officers, and billions in prison funding. The thumping came from black churches and politicians. It came from Republicans who were running on a theme of personal responsibility. It was the same tide that caused an uptick in the number of children charged as adults—teenagers like Kalief Browder, who in 2010 was sent to Riker’s Island and held in solitary confinement for allegedly stealing a backpack.
It was, as many now know, the beginning of mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline. It is an era that most politicians—Democrats and Republicans alike—would rather not talk about. And since both Democratic candidates for president supported the legislation, many believe it’s “off the table” as an issue.
It shouldn’t be.
Former U.S. Senator turned Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered what some are calling a very strong and wide-reaching speech on race today. Her audience included former Attorney General Eric Holder, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, and a host of others who take Clinton at her word when she says she will put an end to mass incarceration and dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.
The truth is neither Clinton nor her primary opponent can credibly say they have been reformers. The record on that is clear. In fact, together with then-Rep. Bernie Sanders, Clinton zealously supported the very policies that led to over-policing in non-white neighborhoods and stripped wealth and opportunity from the families who could least afford it.
In 1995, then-Congressman Sanders voted against legislation that would have demilitarized local police departments. In so many ways, we can thank him and others for the tanks rolling through the streets of Ferguson and the riot gear donned by police officers in Baltimore. While the Vermont senator now calls himself a social justice reformer who marched with Dr. King, he was touting his “strong” and extensive “record of supporting tough crime legislation” as late as 2006. He voted in favor of mandatory minimums, as well as the reauthorization of and multiple funding increases for COPS, which was created by that 1994 crime bill, until 2005.
Clinton, like Sanders, was among those who pushed the 1994 crime bill—which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. “They are not just gangs of kids anymore,” the then-first lady said, two years after its passage. “They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”
Lewis is now “heeling” at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison, a maximum-security facility known as Jackson State located about an hour south of Atlanta. It must be said that there was no pre-trial psychiatric evaluation back in 1997 and no assessment to determine if Lewis was competent to stand trial as an adult. His court-ordered public defender did not press for it, nor did the judge in the case find it necessary.
But one look at his school records, where administrators admitted that Lewis was enrolled for less than two years, would have revealed that he had an IQ well below average. His crack-addled mother “smoked up the water,” Lewis would tell his defense attorneys, referring to how she spent money meant for utility bills on drugs. In fact, every dime of her welfare check went into the pipe. Her three children, who never knew their fathers, survived in a roach-infested, lean-to house with no electricity, with no running water.
Despite the prosecutor’s flagrant, if not heinous, errors and the grossly inadequate defense, Lewis was convicted of murdering Darrell Woods in front of his wife and children at a convenience mart. The Georgia Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court both upheld the life sentence.
“The age of criminal responsibility is 13,” district attorney Howard said of a then-new Georgia law, defending his decision. “That’s what the legislature set for violent crimes.”
Howard wasn’t simply speaking for himself. He was speaking for people who were frustrated with the bloodshed. He was echoing the voices of people like Clinton and Sanders. The mood across the city and the nation was that the prosecution had done its job and that the boy in question was not only guilty but unworthy of saving. Lewis—whom sociologists called a “super predator”—was quickly shackled, shuffled though the polished, wood-paneled doors and largely forgotten.
Ironically, it may have been Lewis’s own social justice activism that has kept him locked up. Due to his participation in a 2010 inmate strike, he has spent at least three of the last five years in solitary confinement and his minimum sentence was increased by five years. Lewis, who was “adopted” by former Black Panther leader and community activist Elaine Brown, led the nation’s largest system-wide inmate strike to protest poor living and working conditions in the Georgia correctional system.
In speech after speech, debate after debate, until today little has been said about how we will begin to reverse the tide—although it appears Clinton has now opened that conversation in earnest. Social justice, at least for Sanders, seems to be focused mostly on income inequality and the unprosecuted, criminal tomfoolery of Wall Street bankers. Notwithstanding the flowery language on a campaign website, he has yet to offer tangible policy solutions that specifically answer the problem. No one, after all, wants to be seen as soft on crime.
“We can’t hide from any of these hard truths about race and justice in America. We have to name them, and own them, and then change them,” Clinton said to a packed audience today in New York. However, as both Sanders and Clinton find a new battleground among black voters, our question must be: What are you going to do to repair what you did to our children? It’s time for us, in Clinton’s words, to name the real issues—to own up to our mistakes and make a meaningful change.