The following editorial appeared in the Erie Times-News. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Tribune-Democrat.
The term “criminal justice reform,” dry, legalistic, fails to evoke the existential urgency of the work.
This movement for change, a rare American cause around which many on the left and right unite, does not play out on paper, but in real human lives – the hearts, minds and captive bodies of defendants, and the prospects for their families and communities, which both crime and misguided justice policies harm. In a country governed by the rule of law and founded on the yet-unrealized promise of equal justice, it is not something we can afford to botch.
Take Carl Knight, who shares his story in an exclusive interview published by the Erie Times-News.
This 49-year-old Erie man made headlines two decades ago when a high-profile federal prosecutor and an FBI task force identified him as the kingpin of a drug-dealing ring that smuggled into the region 458 pounds of crack cocaine worth $20.8 million. Other white drug kingpins were prosecuted in Erie for powder cocaine and marijuana, but none except Knight, and later, another Black defendant in a different crack cocaine case, drew mandatory life sentences for their crimes. Then punished at a ratio of 100:1, dealing a little over a teaspoon of crack could net a sentence as severe as someone dealing a pound of powder.
Knight, raised “without a foundation,” said he fell into the wrong crowd. A young father and former high school basketball standout, he tried his hand at odd jobs, a sandwich shop, selling clothes, and also ferrying vast quantities of crack from New York City to Erie secreted in votive candles.
“You think you’re strong and you know what you are doing,” he said.
Then came the indictment and trial, the federal jury that convicted him after 40 minutes of deliberation, and the sentence in August 1999 that effectively ended his life at 28. Or so it appeared.
Knight had no hope of regaining his freedom upon his entry to prison. Near the end of his first year, he said, he experienced an epiphany, chiefly, the damage he had caused Erie and his children.
Prison boils down your options, he said. Double down on criminality. Give up. Lose your mind. “When you see that pill line, it’s sad to see,” he said.
Knight chose to follow, instead, the example set by inmates, some with multiple life sentences, who crafted purposeful, prayerful lives.
He took nearly four dozen classes from HVAC skills to parenting. He exercised. Most of all, he prayed. “My Bible,” he said, “That was my medicine.”
He mentored young people, helped other inmates prepare for reentry to their communities and harbored hope. Defendants serving less time for violent crimes often remarked on his life sentence. And slowly, the nation, too, awoke to the catastrophic legacy of tough-on-crime policies, such as the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 that created harsh crack cocaine penalties that disproportionately affected Black defendants.
Mass incarceration did not repair lives and restore communities, but helped create an underclass hamstrung by criminal records that erect barriers to the building blocks of productive life – employment, housing and education. Worse, it took a devastating, disparate toll on communities of color already at historic, unacceptable disadvantage.
Neither was it practical. In 2019, Knight’s lawyer estimated Knight’s stay in prison had already cost the government more than $600,000.
Knight watched the successive waves of reform, including the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, and repeatedly appealed his sentence.
Finally, the bipartisan First Step Act signed by President Donald Trump in 2018 gave him a path to resentencing.
Senior U.S. District Judge David S. Cercone in January deemed the 22 years Knight had served sufficient. And coming full circle?
The prosecutor who took down Knight’s operation, John J. Trucilla, now an Erie County judge, supported Knight’s release.
Knight’s story is worth studying and his reentry worth supporting not just in its own right, but also because it is instructive for communities across the country as thousands freed by the First Step Act return home. Not everyone will have achieved conversion like Knight and the odds of successful community reintegration are tough.
We must try – as Knight has – to make things right.
Knight’s release offers redemption beyond warehousing and punishment. Too many young people commit serious crimes, as Knight once did, blindered to their own and the community’s peril. Knight returns home prepared, with the help of local pastor and community leader Bishop Dwane Brock of Victory Christian Center and Trucilla, to offer young people the hard-earned wisdom he wishes someone had shared with him.
Erie and the nation stands at a crossroads. It confronts a criminal justice system in need of ongoing reform and reimagination and
also a groundswell of will to uproot the intolerable legacy of white supremacy that tips the scales not just in the courts, but workplaces, schools, neighborhoods and more.
Men such as Knight, their life experiences and insights, stand at the center.
See them. Hear them. Learn.