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“Eighteen years, nine months and 27 days,” said Jessie Garner, a 70-year-old African American man. He wore a well-ironed polo shirt tucked into his khaki pants, looking out through narrow, square glasses under a tweed cap. On his arm he had a wristwatch with the Superman logo emblazoned on it.
He said it as he sat behind his cluttered office desk, sifting through piles of client files at the Fayetteville Cumberland Reentry Council, a nonprofit organization that helps those formerly incarcerated reintegrate back into society.
“Eighteen years, nine months and 27 days,” Garner says again, slower and with more emphasis this time, as if counting each day, one by one.
Eighteen years, nine months and 27 days is the amount of time Garner spent in prison for armed robbery, kidnapping and trafficking marijuana, charges he was convicted of over 40 years ago. When asked about his experience in the justice system, he repeated how long he was in prison.
The most serious charges were the armed robbery and kidnapping. He held four people at gunpoint in a store against their will, resulting in the kidnapping charge, Garner said with regret.
“I’m not minimizing nothing that I did. Not minimizing one bit,” he said.
He was released from prison on Dec. 6, 1999, another date he says quickly from memory, as if it were his birthday, after paying for his crimes for nearly 19 years of his life. But the consequences didn’t end there. After his release, Garner said his record from the charges had affected his ability to get a job or even find a place to live.
“You do your time, but the stigma is always there,” Garner said. “People don’t understand the dynamics — how your background impacts you. It literally puts you in a place where you have the mindset that every door is going to close.”
Last month, President Joe Biden pardoned those federally charged with possession of small amounts of marijuana in an effort to give those convicted an easier path to reenter society. The president called on governors to do the same, but for people with more serious charges like Garner, the pardons aren’t much help.
The Biden administration claims that the pardons will “help relieve the collateral consequences arising from these convictions,” such as the lack of access to housing and unemployment benefits. But even if his order had this effect, it only applies to those whose only charge is simple possession of marijuana at the federal level.
Gov. Roy Cooper would need to take the action Biden has to have the same effect in North Carolina. Following the announcement of Biden’s pardons, the governor said in a press statement that he had asked state lawyers “to determine if there is action we can and should take” regarding pardons at the state level.
In the days after Biden’s order, both Cooper and N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein called on the state legislature to decriminalize simple possession of marijuana.
Simple possession of marijuana in North Carolina is defined as 1.5 ounces or less. The charge is classified as a misdemeanor and typically comes with a $200 fine and limited jail time depending on the exact amount possessed. Anything over that amount is a felony and comes with higher fines and longer sentences in jail.
N.C. Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger and N.C. Speaker of the House Tim Moore, the two top Republicans in the state legislature, did not reply to Carolina Public Press when asked for a response to calls from the governor for further decriminalization and pardons.
The calls from Cooper and Stein follow recommendations first made in 2020 from the N.C. Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice, an initiative started by the Cooper administration to help address racial injustice in North Carolina following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man born in Fayetteville who was killed in Minneapolis in 2020 by a police officer. The killing started a nationwide reckoning with how racism is embedded in American society.
Despite efforts from Cooper and Stein, neither the pardons nor decriminalization that they’re calling for would help Garner and others who have more serious charges related to marijuana.
To make lasting change, Garner said, one that allows for stable housing and employment to prior offenders of all kinds, it will require not only a change in policy but one in the minds of people who judge others for being incarcerated.
“I had a lot of doors closed in my face,” he said, frustrated with the judgment he’s received from others for having a prior record.
“I’m just like you, just like you,” Garner emphasized. “Why can’t I do what you do, have what you have?”
Others who haven’t been incarcerated, who don’t struggle to meet basic needs, he said, look down on him for what he did over 40 years ago.
“Being an African American Black male, I know that I have to work harder, and because I have a background, that’s another strike against me,” Garner said.
From Garner’s perspective, it shouldn’t be like that.
The reentry process
After Garner was released from prison about 20 years ago, he struggled to get back on his feet. He was denied housing, jobs, even a credit card.
Thirteen years passed, and many doors closed until Garner finally got there. He became the lead pastor of the Open Arms Community Church in Fayetteville. He began working with the Fayetteville Police Department in its Operation Ceasefire program, an initiative working to reduce gun violence in the community. He even returned to his flooring business — something he’d done before being incarcerated.
But he didn’t think it was fair that he had to struggle so much to get a basic quality of life. One example was an experience he had applying to a local company, which he wouldn’t name. On the application, he wrote that he hadn’t committed a crime in North Carolina in seven years, something he was proud of. But the company looked into his background and didn’t hire him.
What he needed was what that company wouldn’t give him — a chance to redeem himself, to have an opportunity, a baseline of stable housing and a good job.
“I knew where I wanted to go. I knew what I wanted to do. But I didn’t have the resources,” Garner said.
He wanted to help others who don’t have those resources either. He attended community and local government meetings to advocate for those reentering society, but he wasn’t satisfied with what his leaders were doing.
“I’m just tired. I can’t do it. I’m on burnout,” he said. “You go into meetings, but nobody is really helping the people that need it. It’s a lot of conversation, a lot of politics, but nobody is helping. There’s a group of individuals, a demographic of people that get left out.”
The Fayetteville Cumberland Reentry Council
In 2016, Garner was ready to give up until he heard from a friend about a program on the state level, the State Reentry Council Collaborative.
That same year he worked with the N.C. Department of Public Safety to form a local nonprofit called the Fayetteville Cumberland Reentry Council as its director. The council advises those who have just been released from prison by pointing them to local services such as job training from NCWorks, a state service that trains job seekers, free of charge, to prepare for various occupations.
Garner has also worked with landlords and employers in the community who are hesitant to provide housing or employment to someone with a prior record, encouraging them to give those formerly incarcerated a second chance.
“For them to get a job, support their family,” he said. “What I hear the majority of the time is ‘I want my child to be proud of me.’”
After forming the council in 2016, Garner began working with those formerly incarcerated in 2018 after taking time to get the program up and running. From 2018 until last year, according to Garner, the council has helped employ over 250 people previously incarcerated.
And even then, some slip through the cracks, Garner said while thumbing through a stack of resumes from people in the program who were denied by employers. Many employers don’t hire people with a prior record.
“Nobody wants to sell drugs,” Garner said, “but you leave them no choice.”
Racism within drug enforcement
Throughout the past few decades, enforcement of marijuana possession laws has disproportionately affected Black people, according to an analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union.
From 2001-10 across the country, Black people were more than four times as likely as white people to be arrested for marijuana possession. This is despite young Black and white people using marijuana at roughly the same rates during that period, according to the ACLU analysis.
This analysis, however, looks at the country as a whole. Getting data at the state and county level in North Carolina is more difficult.
When asked for conviction and demographic data for simple possession of marijuana charges dating back to 2010, Cumberland County Clerk of Superior Court Kimberly Baxley said that data is not available.
“The N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts does not have the data you requested,” she said in an email to Carolina Public Press.
There is some data available regarding simple possession charges, but it’s limited to just 2017-19. This data, despite claims from the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, came from that state agency. The data was analyzed by the N.C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission, said Michelle Hall, the commission’s executive director, in an email.
In those three years, according to analysis by the N.C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission, 42,692 people were charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana. Of those, over 55% were either Black, Hispanic or Native American.
In each year, Black people charged outnumbered white people. This is despite white people in North Carolina making up over 70% of the population, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data.
While there’s no broad data reported, spanning decades, that gauges the impact of marijuana laws, those who have worked in the system suspect the enforcement of those laws are unfair.
Gregory Weeks is a retired N.C. Superior Court judge and former public defender in Cumberland County.
Weeks, now a racial justice activist for Organizing Against Racism Cumberland County, said he saw the racism within the criminal justice system firsthand, seeing Black people given harsher, more frequent sentences for victimless drug crimes.
He said the full scope of marijuana enforcement in North Carolina would show similar numbers nationwide.
“Given what I know about how the system works, the numbers are damning. So, nobody wants them out there,” Weeks said.
‘Hearts and minds’
Drug prohibition in America dates back to the late 1800s, and marijuana criminalization goes back to the early 20th century. Decades later in the 1970s, then-President Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs. Many experts consider Nixon’s war a failure, given how disproportionate the enforcement of marijuana laws has been on Black and Brown people.
Ted Shaw, a professor of law and director of the Center for Civil Rights at UNC Chapel Hill, is one of those against the war on drugs.
“A lot of white folks use drugs in this country, but they don’t get policed in the same way. They don’t get arrested in the same proportions. They don’t get prosecuted in the same proportions. If they get convicted, they don’t get convicted in the same proportions,” Shaw said. “Those penalties are not proportionate to those visited upon Black and Brown people.”
Garner said the racism present in drug enforcement can especially be seen after someone leaves prison, closing opportunities for those charged with drug crimes among a largely Black and Brown population.
“If they have background, they’re homeless. If they’re homeless, it leads to mental health issues and drug abuse,” Garner said. “It all works together. You can’t just look at one and think you’re going to address one and don’t address all of them.”
Garner often speaks about the racism inside the perception of those formerly incarcerated with anger, what he calls “raging on the inside.” This anger is directed at those who judge others based on mistakes they’ve made in the past and a system that reinforces it, leading to denial of employment and housing.
Biden, Cooper, Stein and many other public officials across the country have called for marijuana decriminalization. What’s missing, from Garner’s perspective, is the push to change the cultural perception of those formerly incarcerated, even for serious crimes, to allow forgiveness and a fair opportunity for redemption and reentry.
“Until you get people’s hearts and minds in a place where they understand that humanity,” Garner said. “(To understand) it’s a human being trying to survive.”