Bernie Kerik is one of New York City's most famous former police commissioners. He began his career in 1986 as an NYPD officer walking the beat, worked undercover for the DEA, and ran the Rikers Island jail before becoming New York's top cop under Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 2000. It was Kerik who led the city's police department during the 9/11 attacks.
He is also one of the city's most infamous former police commissioners. Kerik's fall from grace began in 2004, when he was nominated by then–President George W. Bush to head the Department of Homeland Security. The subsequent vetting process turned out to be Kerik's undoing, and in 2009, he pleaded guilty to eight felony charges including corruption, tax fraud, and lying to White House officials. He was sent to a minimum security prison in Cumberland, Maryland, where he served three years and 11 days. The experience, he says, changed him.
"No one with my experience, my background… has ever been inside," Kerik told VICE News in a recent interview. "The one thing that a cop or a law enforcement executive doesn't see and doesn't understand is the destruction that the system causes to individuals, to families, to children."
Kerik emerged from prison with a mission to get criminal justice reform on the national political agenda. He wrote a book, From Jailer to Jailed, detailing his unusual trajectory, and he now leads the American Coalition for Criminal Justice Reform, a nonprofit organization that, according to its website, advocates for "common sense, statistic-based initiatives that will transform our outdated criminal justice system."
"This isn't about money, this isn't about opportunism, this isn't about none of that," Kerik said. "This is about flaws and failures that I saw within the system myself… that I think have to be changed."
Watch VICE News Editor-in-Chief Jason Mojica interview Bernie Kerik.
Kerik, a staunch Republican, singled out the GOP, saying conservatives party needs to step up and lead the push to address the inequities of the criminal justice system.
"Republicans have to do more," Kerik said. He referenced a justice and prison policy symposium last year that featured an unlikely alliance between Van Jones, the black civil rights advocate and environmental reformer, and Newt Gingrich, the right-wing former House speaker. "A number of Democratic congressman and senators showed up to talk about criminal justice reform," Kerik said. "Republicans didn't show up at all. They sent a video."
Hearing Kerik champion criminal justice reform and call out his fellow Republicans might be surprising to those who remember the nearly two decades he spent putting people behind bars. He joined the NYPD in 1986, working as a patrolman in Times Square when it was still seedy and dangerous. He rose through the ranks and maintained a hard-charging approach even after he became commissioner. A profile of him by the New York Times in early 2001 described him as "a black belt in karate who is built like a fireplug," and noted that he still patrolled the streets at night with his security detail, making at least four arrests.
In the years after 9/11, Kerik became heavily involved in counter-terrorism operations. He left the NYPD to serve as Iraq's interim minister of the interior after the 2003 US invasion, and later worked as a consultant for the Kingdom of Jordan, building prisons to house some of the world's most hardened terrorists.
"I've put a lot of people in prison," Kerik says now. "I've put people in prison for a long period of time."
Kerik's experience as an inmate has convinced him that the US is taking the wrong approach to fighting crime. He described meeting young black men who were serving 10 to 15 years for cocaine conspiracy charges even though they weren't caught with any drugs when they were arrested. He says he met a commercial fisherman who was locked up for exceeding his catch limit.
"I met a young guy that sold a whale's tooth on eBay — they put him in federal prison," Kerik said. "I came to realize very quickly, there's a whole bunch of people in prison that didn't necessarily need prison to pay for their mistakes."
The Department of Justice under President Barack Obama has taken strides to reform some aspects of the criminal justice system, such as eliminating the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. Kerik says Republicans need to put aside their differences and take up the mantle and push for even more comprehensive changes.
So far, criminal justice reform has not been a major issue in the 2016 presidential election. Democratic frontrunners Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have called for an overhaul, but it has not been a focal point of their campaigns. The top Republican candidates have focused on national security, illegal immigration, and the economy.
"I think criminal justice reform should be one of the top five domestic issues sitting on the president's desk," Kerik said. "Whether it's this president or the next president, whoever that may be. Because it's destroying families, it's destroying children, it's annihilating the US American workforce. It's creating a permanent underclass of American citizen."
Follow VICE News on Twitter: @ViceNews