There’s a new tide in Washington.
With every press conference, congressional hearing, legislative repeal, and presidential tweet, evidence of a starkly different White House era becomes alarmingly more apparent. And though the last 100-plus days will undoubtedly be marked for its setbacks on the ladder towards equality, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ newly re-launched War on Drugs seeks to return the Black community, in particular, to a time that forever changed it for the worse.
For the past 40 years, activists and politicians alike have worked tirelessly to undo the mass incarceration mindset of the 1970’s — a time when President Nixon criminalized addiction and marijuana use in an effort to purposely disrupt communities of color. One of the greatest allies in this enduring fight was Kings County District Attorney Ken Thompson.
He passed away last fall just days after announcing he would take a leave of absence to address the cancer diagnosis that lay before him. What he left behind was a record of progressive practices that induced criminal justice reform in a borough that greatly needed it.
Wayne K. Williams, Deputy Chief of Staff for the Brooklyn DA’s office told ESSENCE during a recent interview that Thompson “showed by his actions that you can change the system.”
And change it, he did. His steps towards reform began soon after taking office, looking at low-level marijuana possession arrests occurring in Brooklyn and correlating it with the activities around Stop-and-Frisk. He identified a pattern amongst those being charged with misdemeanors. By most accounts, they were Black and brown men, receiving irreversible tarnishes to their rap sheet mainly due to race.
To address the problem Thompson launched a marijuana policy that committed to letting first time offenders, with little to no previous infractions, go without prosecution — a move that came to the dismay of city officials but one that Williams asserts was centered around Thompson’s desire to avoid strapping young men of color with lifetime criminal records for minor possession.
As Kings County’s first Black district attorney, Thompson felt an obligation to address the growing concerns of the largely African-American and Latino community he was elected to represent. A 2013 study found that of the people serving lifetime sentences without the possibility of parole, African-Americans make up 65 percent of these cases, largely based on recommendations reached through plea-bargaining between prosecutors and court appointed lawyers. Throughout history this miscarriage of justice led to growing fear between public officials and communities of color.
Thompson was all too aware of its consequences.
Williams ensures that during his tenure as DA, Thompson wanted to be tough on crime. He wanted Brooklyn to be a safe place. But his overarching vision for the city was to protect it while being fair.
“Every morning when Ken woke up, he would call me and he would say, ‘We’ve got one standard of justice to uphold.’ And that’s how folks have to feel — that they have one criminal justice system not based on their income, not based on their race, not based on their background, or socioeconomics; one criminal justice system.”
After Thompson’s passing, an NBC headline read, “Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson’s Death Leaves Exoneration Movement Mourning.” Appropriate, given that during the nearly three years he spent in office, much of his work centered on clearing the names of men and women who were victimized by the system. He called the initiative — turned task force — Brooklyn’s Conviction Review Unit.
In total his office reviewed over 100 cases. Under Thompson, 21 individuals (all persons of color) who were wrongfully convicted of crimes saw those convictions vacated in the interest of justice. It’s a model the DA was proud of, and hoped could inspire attorney’s offices across the country.
In intimate circles Thompson discussed that his passion for the welfare of the public was leading him to consider life beyond the DA’s office. As Williams explains, “Ken believed that from Wall street to the hood, if there’s no sense of justice, to do the right thing, then the city is just in a responsive position, versus proactively helping the neediest, and expanding upon the successes that the city has already been able to achieve.”
Thompson’s dream of going beyond never actualized. Cancer took that away. It also stripped him of the opportunity to celebrate New York’s announcement of Raise the Age and the closing of Rikers, two noteworthy criminal justice reforms within his state. But what Brooklyn’s first Black DA did see was evidence of a changed Kings County through his steadfast efforts.
The new tide in Washington may look dismally different from the last, but the fight to end mass incarceration rages on.