Justice in America Episode 17: Killers Who Don’t Kill
Josie and Clint unpack the felony murder doctrine with Marlon Peterson, an advocate, writer, and host of the podcast DEcarcerated.
In prisons across America, people are serving decades-long sentences for crimes they didn’t commit. Some face a life sentence or even the death penalty. Yet there is no hope of exoneration because technically, these people aren’t innocent. They may not be guilty as a matter of fact, but they are guilty as a matter of law. On this episode, we dissect the felony murder doctrine, and explore the various ways our system transfers culpability. We also talk to Marlon Peterson, an advocate, writer, and host of the podcast DEcarcerated. Marlon became a leader on this issue after he was convicted of felony murder and spent a decade in prison. He spoke about his experience in prison and the work he’s done since his release.
You can find out more about Marlon here. You can also check out his podcast! He’s also on Twitter, at @_marlonpeterson and @DEcarceratedpod
Felony murder: why a teenager who didn’t kill anyone faces 55 years in jail, The Guardian
Curtis Brooks Didn’t Kill Anyone. So Why Is He Labeled a Murderer for Life?, The Appeal
If He Didn’t Kill Anyone, Why Is It Murder?, The New York Times
Charged with murder, but they didn’t kill anyone—police did, The Chicago Reader
Information about those people who have been executed despite not actually murdering the victim can be found here.
The Felony-Murder Rule Sends Non-Killers to Prison and Doesn’t Even Reduce Crime, Reason
Marlon Peterson: I’m a violent felon for the rest of Marlon’s life I’m a violent felon. Right? I can’t get an AirBnB because of that. If I need to travel, I can’t go to certain countries without getting a whole process done based on was I violent or was I not violent? And there’s no space to grapple with it. Just that what does your record say? You were violent so you just don’t get that thing. You’re never afforded that thing.
Josie Duffy Rice: Hi I’m Josie Duffy Rice.
Clint Smith: And I’m Clint Smith
Josie: And this is Justice in America. Each show we discuss a topic in the American criminal justice system and try to explain what it is and how it works.
Clint: Thank you so much to everyone for joining us today. You can find us on Twitter @Justice_Podcast, like us on our Facebook page at Justice in America and subscribe and rate us on iTunes, we’d really love to hear from you.
Josie: We opened the show with a clip from our guest Marlon Peterson. Marlon’s a writer, he’s an advocate around issues of incarceration, violence and community empowerment and he hosts a podcast called DEcarcerated.
Clint: Today we’re talking about a disturbing practice in our criminal justice system and that’s people being charged with murder even though they didn’t actually kill anyone. This phenomenon takes many different forms, which we’re going to talk about today. But as always, we’re starting out with our word of the day. And today, the word is-
Josie: Violent. [Bell] Yeah our word of the day is violent or nonviolent. Either one actually works for our purposes.
Clint: So if you live on planet earth, at least if you live in America, I can’t speak for everywhere but I am sure you have heard the term violent criminal. You hear it on TV
Woman: [Dramatic music] Was a violent criminal.
Man: And I am a violent criminal.
Clint: You’ve heard it from politicians on both sides of the aisle.
Barack Obama: There are people who need to be in prison and I don’t have tolerance for violent criminals, many of them may have made mistakes but we need to keep our communities safe.
Donald Trump: This is Hillary Clinton’s agenda to release the violent criminals from jail. She wants them all released. She wants people released that you wouldn’t want to walk on the street with, you wouldn’t want to look at.
Josie: Violent crime, violent criminal, nonviolent offender, these are all terms we are used to. For many people, perhaps yourself, this is what separates the hardened, evil offenders from the guys who just made a mistake. The people who could be redeemed, those are the nonviolent ones.
Clint: This makes sense, of course, because violence is a visceral word, it has really strong implications. Traditionally, you hear violent offender and you think, well, this person raped someone or they killed someone or beat them within half an inch of their life. But we’d like to take a second and ask you to just think and really think about what it means to be quote unquote “violent.”
Josie: This is both a theoretical inquiry and a practical one. But let’s start with the former. Why is it harmful when we split people into two categories: violent and nonviolent?
Clint: Well, part of the reason is that violent and nonviolent are seen as synonymous with other terminology. Violent offenders, we understand, have committed serious crimes and committed harm against people. Nonviolent offenders have committed non-serious crimes. But this doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality that exists in the world.
Josie: Yeah so, in preparation for this episode, I looked up violent crime on Wikipedia. I just wanted to see how they defined it. And, you know, the little intro section that they have at the top of Wikipedia pages gave examples of violent crimes. And I’m gonna just read you what they listed. Are you ready?
Clint: I’m ready.
Josie: Ok. So, it’s dramatic. It says, “Typically, violent criminals includes,” and I swear this is the first thing they list, “aircraft hijackers, bank robbers, muggers, burglars, terrorists, carjackers, rapists, kidnappers, torturers, active shooters, murderers, gangsters, drug cartels, and others.”
Clint: Aircraft hijackers is the first thing on the list.
Josie: Aircraft hijackers is the first violent crime example.
Josie: I find that, I really want to know who edited it.
Clint: There’s a lot of politics to unpack from that.
Josie: (Chuckles.) Yeah. Someone has an agenda. So none of these sound like, you know, good things. They all sound very violent. But let’s imagine some other things that may be classified as violent.
Clint: Like, Let’s say in high school you get in a schoolyard fight. Or maybe, a better example may be, you’re in college, and you get in a fight at a party. No one is hurt, but the cops show up, and you and the person you’re fighting are both arrested – under the standard definitions of violent, this constitutes as a violent crime.
Josie: Right. So, on the other hand, Bernie Madoff committed like a bazillion dollars worth of fraud. And a bazillion actually isn’t that far off as a number. Like the real number I looked up, he basically cheated people out of $60 billion. $60 billion he stole, leading to suicides, destroyed lives, a ton of emotional fall out, but that’s a nonviolent crime.
Clint: Right. Now, these examples are extreme. Most nonviolent crime is not a Bernie Madoff. Most violent crime is not a school yard fight. But the point here is that the descriptors are used so often that they are often seen to demarcate thing and create a binary, when there isn’t necessarily one. And it’s one that has real policy implications. And you often hear it from even people who identify as progressive law enforcement saying we should be harder on violent criminals and easier on nonviolent criminals.
Josie: And again, this gets back to something that we’ve talked about before, all of these definitions are predicated on the involvement of law enforcement. So, if you get in a fight at a party and you’re arrested and charged and convicted, you are now a violent offender. If you get in the exact same fight at the exact same party but the cops don’t get involved you don’t start thinking of yourself as a violent offender. You don’t, ten years after the fight, try to rent an apartment or get a job or get into grad school, you’re not going to tell the people “By the way I’m a violent offender. I was never arrested but I did get in a fight in college and that makes me a violent offender.” You know these terms are only used in terms of the consequences of what happens after, not the actual event.
Clint: So this is kind of the theoretical point, violent and nonviolent are not clear cut entities. There are plenty of very serious crimes that are legally defined as being nonviolent and there’s some stuff that would qualify as violent that we would all agree shouldn’t ruin the entirety of your life. But, let’s talk briefly about the practical point too. As we’ve said many times, most cases in the justice system end in a guilty plea. Basically, instead of the trials you’ve seen on TV, we’re talking about a negotiation, out of earshot of any court reporter or judge or jury and often taking just a few minutes. And the plea offer is not always — or even usually — reflective of the crime necessarily. Depending on the situation that you find yourself in and your record and the prosecutor’s docket and their relationship with your attorney and that attorney’s relationship with the judge and so on and so forth, you may be charged with something more harsh than your alleged crime was, or you may get a plea offer that lets you off easy.
Josie: So often, what a person is convicted of just does not correlate directly to what they did or are accused of doing. And the point is sort of the goal in our criminal justice system is to process infinite cases in as little time with as little resources. Accuracy is just not the goal. And so someone may be a violent criminal for something they didn’t really do. They may have done something violent and been convicted on a lesser count.
Clint: And here’s something you may not know — even the crime as described in the law may not actually be violent. In California, until recently, robbing an uninhabited building was classified as a violent crime.
Josie: Even though nobody is in the building, that’s the whole point.
Clint: No harm was committed, no one was hurt, but it constitutes as a violent crime. And it’s not the only thing like that. Anyway, our terms of the day are not always related to our topic, but today, there’s definitely some overlap. Because today we’re talking about people serving time for crimes that they did not commit.
Josie: Yeah and we’re not talking about innocent people. That’s a different thing. What we want to explore is this phenomenon of a person being convicted of something they are not guilty of as a matter of fact but are guilty of as a matter of law. So, I know that’s abstract, let’s make it less abstract.
Clint: Let’s imagine that you and your friends decide to rob your neighbor’s house. You don’t want to hurt him, but you do want his stuff, so you decide to rob the house during the day, when he’s at work. Your friend brings a gun, and he tells you that he has it with him. But as soon as you break in you actually see your neighbor and it turns out he didn’t go in to work that day. Things escalate, and in a moment of panic, your friend pulls out a gun and shoots your neighbor. Are you then guilty of murder? You may be thinking, of course not. You didn’t shoot your neighbor. You didn’t have a gun. You didn’t have intent. You didn’t even know he would be at the house. Why would you be guilty of murder?
Josie: But this is the basis of the felony murder rule, which is a major doctrine in criminal law. Like every other thing we talk about on this show, the specifics vary from state to state and jurisdiction to jurisdiction. And your state may have a different name for it. But we’re going to go with felony murder for today. The felony murder rule is basically that if, during the commission of a felony, Person A is killed by Person B, Person B and all his accomplices or co-conspirators can be found guilty of murder. There are some guidelines here, the felony being committed has to be foreseeably dangerous, and there has to be some sort of reasonable connection between the death and the felony.
Clint: So maybe you can see how this makes sense. You went to rob the guys house, which is a dangerous felony. You knew your friend had a gun. The law basically says look, you may not have pulled the trigger, but you’re also responsible. You’re complicit, you risked it and you’re to blame, too.
Josie: But, okay, so let’s take it a little further. What if you were just the look out and you were never going to step inside the house? Or what if you didn’t know your friend had a gun? Or what if it was your neighbor that had the gun, and he shot your friend? Or what if you startled your neighbor so bad when you broke in that he had a heart attack? Should you be held liable for murder in those situations?
Clint: This is where the policy behind felony murder gets really murky and really unclear. And where it begins to be abused by people in power, particularly law enforcement. Criminal law is based very broadly on the idea that, for someone to be held criminally liable, there needs to be a guilty act and a guilty mind. In some instances, just one of those will do. But arguably, in felony murder cases, people often have neither. They didn’t do the act, and they didn’t intend for the act to be done. Does that make them a murderer?
Josie: It’s hard to answer these questions definitively, because you can always imagine a set of particular circumstances that would render the answer either a hard yes or a hard no. But here are just a few examples of people being charged with felony murder in situations that to us seem to be on the extreme side.
Clint: Kenneth Foster was 19 when he and a few friends, one of whom had a gun, committed two armed robberies. Kenneth was driving the car. While they were driving around, they ended up pulling over so one of Kenneth’s friends could talk to a woman on the road. Kenneth and his friends said the woman flagged him down, while she said the men were tailing her and she pulled over to see who they were. Either way, things got heated, and one of his friends pulled out the gun and shot the woman’s boyfriend. Then they ended up fleeing the scene.
Josie: Here’s Kenneth talking on the Netflix Show I Am A Killer about his case. He references Mauricio Brown, who is the guy who actually committed the murder.
Kenneth Foster: Mauricio Brown testified that we didn’t plan a robbery, he testified that nobody encouraged him to rob, and he testified that he acted on his own accord. Unfortunately that wasn’t good enough, you know, the jury didn’t believe it, you know, and they convicted both of us of capital murder, they convicted me to being a conspirator to the crime.
Clint: Kenneth was charged under Texas’s “law of parties” statute, which is essentially the same as felony murder. Though he killed no people and fired no shots, he got the death penalty.
Kenneth Foster: They convicted me mostly for being a driver, for driving the car, um, and they handed down a death sentence for that.
Clint: A few years ago, just six hours before he was supposed to be executed, his sentence was commuted to 40 years. He’ll be eligible for parole in 2036.
Josie: So here’s another story. In 2003, Ryan Holle and his friends went out drinking. They were young kids, like 21 or 22. At some point Ryan went home and told his friends they could borrow his car. His friends ended up robbing a drug dealer and beating the drug dealer’s 18 year old daughter to death. Ryan was at home a few miles away and had no idea this was going on, but he was convicted of felony murder. Prosecutors later said that Ryan was liable because his friends had talked about robbing the drug dealer before. Ryan said that he thought they were joking and that they had told him that they wanted his car just to get some food. He wasn’t there for he murder and he wasn’t aware of any plan to murder someone. But prosecutors said that the murder only happened because Ryan let them borrow the vehicle. That made him responsible. Ryan was sentenced to life without parole. In 2015, his sentence was commuted to 25 years. He went in at 22, and he’ll be close to 50 when he’s released.
Clint: And as terrible as that case sounds, it gets even worse. There’s another case in Chicago where Tevin Louis, who was 19 when he and his best friend, Marquise Sampson, stole $1,200 dollars from the local sandwich shop in Chicago. The two boys were running down the street when two police officers began to chase them down. Marquise ran one way. Tevin ran another. They never saw each other again. Because soon after, one of the officers shot Marquise three times, after claiming that he had pointed a gun at him.
Josie: So Marquise was killed by the police, but it was Tevin who was charged with felony murder. He was convicted and sentenced to 52 years in prison. The officer who shot Marquise on the other hand, was given an award of valor by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Clint: Felony murder is just one way that law enforcement and prosecutors can punish you for things that you didn’t do. You’ve probably heard of conspiracy laws. In theory, they sound like they make sense. If you conspire to carry out a crime, and that crime is carried out, it sounds reasonable that you would be considered among the guilty party.
Josie: But, again, this is another place where law enforcement has the power to stretch the boundaries of the crime so dramatically that people are regularly charged for conspiracies that aren’t really conspiracies at all. The crime of conspiracy typically does not require that one defendant know their co-conspirators. So a low-level drug dealer selling small amounts of weed to his buddies can end up serving the sentence of a major drug kingpin just due to them technically being co-conspirators.
Clint: Conspiracy law is often abused to charge all members of a quote unquote “gang” for the same crime. And how law enforcement defines a gang is increasingly loosely defined. In New York, prosecutors have held press conferences to brag about taking down drug gangs. But the reality is much more disturbing. On more than one occasion they’ve arrested over 100 young black men, accusing them all of criminal activity, apparently punishing dozens of people for the crimes of just two or three. Oftentimes, prosecutors claim that the gang affiliation is related to them living in public housing, once again over punishing poor people just for being poor.
Josie: And, in many jurisdictions, we’re seeing another warped use of these laws, as a way to perpetuate the failed war on drugs. In these places, when a person unintentionally overdoses on opioids, prosecutors will charge the person that gave them those drugs with murder. These aren’t the big drug dealers they’re charging, either. It’s often another person suffering from addiction, or the deceased person’s partner or friend. In one story, a student gave his girlfriend what he believed was Adderall after she asked if she could have some. It turned out to be Fentanyl and his girlfriend died. The District Attorney charged him with murder and he ended up committing suicide a few years later. To dig deeper into our subject we’re joined by our guest, Marlon Peterson. Marlon’s a writer, he hosts a podcast called DEcarcerated and he’s an advocate around issues of incarceration and violence and community empowerment. Stay tuned.
Josie: Okay. We are here to day with Marlon Peterson who has just been an incredible and critical part of the criminal justice reform space for years now. Marlon is the host of the DEcarcerated podcast and he’s an Atlantic Fellow for Racial Equity and we’re so excited that you join us today.
Marlon Peterson: Thanks for having me ya’ll. Thanks, I appreciate being here.
Josie: Absolutely. So first we, we just want to know how you came into this work and tell our listeners sort of what brought you into this space?
Marlon Peterson: I’ve asked that question myself several times because there’s so many different ways in which I can answer it, but most notably is that I’m somebody who spent a good amount of my twenties inside a prison in New York State. So being in prison you learn a lot about injustices, a lot more so and definitely beyond your personal experience. So in so many instances there were times when I caught myself advocating on behalf of other things, other people, issues inside of facilities, but often like speak about a program that was a part of, that myself and a friend created. It was a letter writing, mentoring program for some middle school students in Brooklyn while I was inside. And I think that sorta changed my trajectory in terms of what I would do after I got out. At the time I was, you know, being an electrician, you know, my brother’s an electrician, I need a job, will be a good job, I can get, you know, they had more opportunities for people like myself to get into that field. Um, but then when I, when I participated in that program, it propelled me to see in other ways and other gifts and skills that I had so allowed me to not only advocate inside on behalf of other people, but then I started running programs and facilitate with college students, people inside doing counseling, preparing men for their release. And it just exposed me to so many different things that I could contribute to.
Clint: And when you were on the inside, you were involved in a range of different programs, I believe, right? Were that, I know transformative for you, but also, especially in your sort of work which you were head of the Transitional Services Center?
Marlon Peterson: Yeah.
Clint: Obviously had a huge impact on a lot of other folks who were coming in and out of that system. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Marlon Peterson: Yeah. Transitional Services Center is the first time I ever, you know, really spoken in front of a group of people and I was scared out of, can we curse on this?
Marlon Peterson: You know, and um, I was scared shitless because, so the Transitional Services Center did one on one counseling for men who were nearing their release, but we also facilitated workshops. Everything from family to reintegration, career development, social living skills. Um, and I was like 24, 25 and the other men who worked in the Transitional Services Center were way beyond my years. They had more way more time that I had in at that time. At the time I had about four or five years in. And so it was a maturity for me to be in front of people who had way more time than I did seeing that I have some sort of knowledge I want to impart on other folks. But it also for the first time helped me to see how much prison was sorta just creating, literally creating prisoners. Um, because in the process of all this programming that was a part of, I was always swimming upstream, meaning that often many times, even up to seven, eight days before I got released, I was on the heavy hand of the administration for trying to get information and cause information that they had was all archaic and I would do whatever I can to get up to date information, whether it be for school, what reentry programs were really still, you know, still working. Um, and you know, I went through a lot for that.
Clint: And you were punished for it?
Marlon Peterson: I was punished for it, no question. Up to seven days before I was released, the captain, Captain Penborn, don’t forget his name, looked like Stone Cold Steve Austin, um, and he had said to me, ‘if you had more than seven days left I would lose you in the system.’
Marlon Peterson: And he wanted to, I mean, I had, at that time-
Clint: Just so folks understand when he says, ‘I would lose you in the system,’ what is he saying?
Marlon Peterson: Yeah. So most folks, you know, when, when officers say that to somebody inside that can be the box, it can be, you know, New York State also keep lock, which means you’re in your cell 23 hours a day. And you know-
Clint: And the box is solitary?
Marlon Peterson: The box is SHU, solitary confinement. And I had done nothing to warrant that, but it’s not easy for them to contrive certain things. And in the entire decade I was in prison at that time, it was 10 years, I had never had like a cell search of that capacity at that time and I mean they took everything and the most violating part of it is that they read every letter I ever had. I had journals that I kept that I still had, I kept the entire 10 years and they read my entire journals. So much so that I remember when, uh, when they were returning the journals another officer, Officer Conklin, you don’t forget some people and he said, ‘wow, Marlin, you really did give a fuck, Huh? How come you didn’t write about me in there?’ And I mean, you ever feel like somebody like literary violated you? It was almost in some, and I’d been violated physically as well. And that was felt almost much more deeper than that. Much more traumatic than that because he knew my inner thoughts, right? And he could have, you know, he can, you don’t know what he can do with those thoughts, right? And that was in the process of me at that time, maybe four years working in Transitional Services Center organized a resource reentry fair where community organizations came in and local government officials came in to speak about issues of reentry in the prison. I was one of the first people to organize that, um, bringing in college students and not bringing them in, there was already a program with Vassar College coming in and I just sorta like rebranded a program so that it was more on a peer level as opposed to the past somehow seem like above the incarcerated men and you know, those programs impact a lot of folks. I’m thankful that it has. Um, but it was always a question of, well, what was I really up to, um, up to seven days before I got out?
Josie: Right. So what we’re talking about today and what our conversation has been about is about how the system and one of its many injustices is that it punishes people for things that they did not do. And that happens in so many different ways. And I think that you, particularly because you’ve been working in New York, you’ve been working with youth, you know the different ways that that happens, right? That we punish people for, you know, if you’re in the same public housing project, then you’re in the same gang etcetera. But I was hoping that you could talk about your own experience and what that has affected the way that you see the system sort of on this plane.
Marlon Peterson: Yeah, I mean, I gave a TED Talk and I sorta, I speak about what got me into prison so-
Josie: So am I the only person here who has not given a TED Talk on, uh-
Marlon Peterson: I’m sorry. I’m sorry. (Laughs.)
Josie: Am I, am I even still invited to this conversation?
Clint: Every text message chain with you is like a TED Talk.
Marlon Peterson: (Laughs.) That’s a quotable.
Josie: I dunno, I think I’m going to take that as a compliment.
Marlon Peterson: But yeah, in the TED Talk I speak about the experience of like what got me into prison, which was a robbery, a heinous robbery to be honest. A heinous robbery, attempted robbery at least in which two people were killed and I was a lookout in the crime. I was 19 and five of us were arrested and initially I was facing the death penalty. At the time New York still had death penalty on the books. Now it happened in Manhattan and I remember being in central booking, the second day I was there, something like that and the attorney I had, we get to first see an attorney, he says, ‘hey listen, Marlon it’s a good thing that this happened in Manhattan because you won’t be getting the death penalty, you won’t be facing the death penalty. The worst you will probably get is natural life.’ And that was the first, that was probably the second time in my life I’ve ever had like an outer body experience that, he didn’t really just say like natural life? And my role literally, I go to the store, lower Manhattan, attempted robbery happened, two of my co-defenders went into the store, I was across the street from the store, they went inside the store, two people was killed, shot in the store and then um, there was some sort of gun battle that ensued after that I found out later was police shooting at them or something like that. Um, and I was arrested a couple of days after that at my house and I was charged with everything that they were charged with, so I was facing life in prison. The first offer I got was 40 flat and they said, ‘I’ll give you 40 flat if you cooperate.’ And obviously I didn’t take the 40 flat. I wasn’t and I eventually pled down three years later, uh, was, had no bail and eventually three years later pled down to a 12 year sentence.
Josie: When you say you had no bail, you mean you were, not that you were let out without bail, but that you didn’t have, they did not offer you bail. You were held without bail.
Marlon Peterson: Right, right. Remanded. In fact, when at arraignment the judge had said what I thought was ‘you’re reprimanded.’ So, I remember going back and I asked a CO, a correction officer, ‘he said, I’m reprimanded. What does that mean?’ He said, ‘you sure he said reprimand? You sure he didn’t say remand?’ I said, ‘oh yeah, that’s, that’s probably what he said. So what does that mean?’ He said that means you don’t have bail. Um, so that tells you how ignorant I was of the system at that point in time. So for three years, you know, I’m going back and forth to court, trying to see what could happen.
Josie: And this is before you’ve even been convicted of anything?
Marlon Peterson: Yeah, for sure. And it’s the first time I ever been arrested or anything like that. Well, let me be correct. It was the first time I was arrested for anything like that. I spent a day in jail before for hopping a turnstile a year before that. Um, so yeah, I mean it spoke volumes to this and I think this is where the nuance of it. It was a very heinous crime that occurred. Its culpability shouldn’t be even across the board. And then in so many ways I was not in a position to argue that, right? Because this thing had happened and I knew what was, you know, a robbery was going to go down. Um, I have no right, even to this day, just recently, two days ago for the second time since I’ve been home, I’ve asked to meet with my, the district attorney to have a conversation with her, just so, you know, I don’t believe prisons fix and heal. And I believe there’s a fissure that happened obviously and with her and also with the people, I don’t know who these people were who were, um, killed. I don’t know their families. I don’t, I’ve never known them. Um, but I feel like at this point in my life, I would like to be able to initiate a conversation. And for the second time in 10 years, 9 years, she said, ‘no, I don’t believe Marlon has taken accountability for his, for his role in the crime.’ And, you know, that’s something I have to deal with. It’s something that she, she gets to deal with, but it’s also, it complicates it because this is a place where advocacy on my behalf, I don’t know if it is my place to advocate, right? It’s a complicated space. I didn’t do the thing. I didn’t shoot, I didn’t go in the store. I don’t know who these people were, but I was a part of it. Um, and I’m still being looked at, you know, as the person who actually went and pulled this trigger because the law says that, you know, in the commitment of a felony, you know, you all are responsible for that homicide.
Josie: So you said that they offered you 40 and that you spent three years before you actually were convicted of something and what, and so what ended up happening? What was the actual end result?
Marlon Peterson: First they offered me 40. Then they offered me 25. Then they went up to 35 years to life. Then they went down to 15 years to life and then they went down to 12 years flat with no life at the end. So I had a, it was called a determined sentence of which I served 10 years.
Clint: So in my research, uh, you know, for my, my dissertation, I think a lot about and engage a lot with folks who are specifically sentenced for juvenile life without parole and did so in cases of felony murder. Right? And so these are young men who it’s similar, it sounds like to you, who were involved in a scenario in which someone’s life was taken or someone’s life ended, but oftentimes there’s a spectrum of ways that this can unfold. And what’s fascinating is that oftentimes a lot of these young men didn’t even know what was about to happen, right? Like so for example, they were driving their car and their friends said, ‘pull over right here I gotta go talk to this person.’ And they go talk to somebody, but it’s not actually a conversation, I mean they, and then they go shoot somebody and get back in the car and say like, ‘go, go, go.’ I know a couple of folks who, who found themselves in that, that position. And so, you know, you are now an accomplice to a murder. And so I’m thinking, I say all that to say, because I’m thinking about how do we think about and reconcile complicity and intentionality, right? So I think, you know, for example, you were, you found yourself in a scenario in which you were a participant in something that happened in which two people’s lives ended. I have to imagine you didn’t go into that scenario with the intention to end to have two people’s lives ended. And so how do you think our criminal justice system deals with somebody’s intending to, just the very idea of intent, especially for young people and like the positions that they often find themselves in because of circumstances beyond themselves and if when someone is harmed or when someone’s life is taken, uh, how the system thinks about or takes into consideration the very idea of intent in the first place?
Marlon Peterson: Well, there is an assumption of equal culpability. There’s an assumption of guilt that is like given to certain folks. So in, you know, there’s things that have happened with these, like these huge conspiracy charges or in New York they had this thing called Operation Crew Cut where they would, you know, take down whole projects, a whole housing development and a hundred and some odd people would get arrested.
Clint: Oh wow.
Marlon Peterson: Um, and I, you know, I just met another young brother who just came home from doing six years for that.
Josie: For the Crew Cut thing?
Marlon Peterson: Operation Crew Cut.
Josie: Oh my gosh.
Marlon Peterson: Yeah. And he had nothing to do with the drug conspiracy. He was a part of something else that had nothing to do with it. But because he was affiliated through gang affiliation, he was a part of the conspiracy. He served six years for it. So you know, so many ways. I think the complicated part, was not complicated enough is ways like these particular laws disproportionately affects certain communities. Uh, so I just mentioned like Operation Crew Cut or communities where, because here’s how this thing goes. Like if I give you a gun today and you go, I say y’all a lot to do something, I happen to give you a gun. I have nothing to do with whatever it is you’re about to do with the gun. But you go do something with that gun, some sort of harm, not only are you complicit and you know, I’m culpable, but I am too cause I gave it to you even though I ain’t even really know what you was about to do. And that happens a lot. It happens so much. And, and most folks like me who didn’t even know what a remand was, will say, well yeah, you know, I mean take a plea because of the numbers that were offered and you got to juxtapose a young person facing these very adult situations and not, please, this is not absolution. Right? That’s not absolving folks of what they have done. Right? That’s not a conversation. It’s thinking about like what’s equitable and what’s fair and what is just. And when there is so much access to weapons in certain communities, obviously when there is over policing in certain communities, we know that there is, you know, there’s racial harm that’s done in these communities from law enforcement, from other services that’s afforded to these communities. Well of course then that makes it so much easier to criminalize folks. It makes it so much easier. Not only for like what they did, I gave her a gun, give me a gun charge or what have you. Don’t give me the charge of whatever you went to do too. But that’s how it works. I mean this is the law, this is not something that is even as the, uh, disproportionately administered in court. I mean it’s the law, it’s on the books. So it really needs to be a conversation like how should we revisit these laws because even now we think about criminal justice reform, these are the nuances that are glossed over because it’s not easy to deal with. Just like, and I know I acknowledge it is not easy to deal with, I mentioned with my role, like this is not easy to deal with. But it’s literally affecting folks every single day.
Clint: And it’s interesting too, cause you, you would be, when we think about, you know, glossing over nuance, you would be, you were charged as a violent offender. Even though ostensibly you did not, and this goes into the sort of complicated and messy and more nuanced way of conceiving of like what is violent or nonviolent that doesn’t exist in our public discourse.
Josie: Yeah. But even under the least nuanced idea of violence, you were not violent. That is not what was happening.
Clint: But legally you’re charged as such.
Marlon Peterson: Yeah. I also want to just sort of put in that I didn’t commit that violent act. Right? I didn’t commit that violent. Right? And there’s complications. I grew up in, I engaged in, I did other things. I mean, I grew up in Brooklyn, from Brooklyn, you know, just some things I engage in in many cases because I wanted to survive here. It was the sort of space that I was in and nobody would look at me as a 19 old kid, nobody who knew me would say, I was a kid in so many ways that people were like ‘you should hang with Marlon.’ They tell the other kid ‘you should be around Marlon.’
Marlon Peterson: At the time I was in school, I was actually in school when this happened. I took a day off from school. Because I just wanted, you know, I’m just curious. I wanted to hang with my friends or what have you. Right? I want to be a little bit tough. And a result of that and it was a conscious decision. Nobody forced me to do that. But I think, the reason why I always put those things in there about like nobody forced him because I don’t want people to think that I’m dismissing what happened. I’m saying that an injustice can’t be fixed with another injustice. That’s what I’m saying.
Josie: You made the point that felony murder it’s like a law on the books. And it’s so interesting because when I was in law school, you learn about felony murder and nobody ever said to me the principle of it does not make any sense. You know, it’s supposed to be a deterrent as, but to your point about like you didn’t know what remand meant, it’s not like you knew what felony murder, it’s not as if people have a, you know, who are in this situation, have this sort of like intricate knowledge of the felony murder law that it serves as a deterrent anyway. And so you brought up the point about race and class as well and not like if you’re black and you look like you and you will live in Brooklyn and this is more likely to happen to you than it is if you had been white on the Upper East Side. But I also heard you talk once about how part of why this is used disproportionately against people of color, specifically black people, specifically black men, is because the idea is that you already have that in your head anyway. So you didn’t murder this time, but you would be okay with it. That’s how we stereotype and think of particularly black men and, and your experience of going through this process, of going through three years before, you know, pretrial sitting in jail, of going through the different offers, etcetera. The treatment of you, I’m assuming was just as if you had done it or what was the treatment of you is a better way of saying that?
Marlon Peterson: I remember one of the first things that the prosecutor had said was that we were a Trinidadian posse. Now we all happen to have been of Trinidadian descent. I know two of the people who I knew them before, the other people I didn’t know, there was no elaborate plan. I think people assume there was some elaborate thing. That plan, here’s a bunch of kids in the apartments,’let’s go do this.’ ‘Okay, let’s go do it.’ But that’s the one thing, right? She assumed that we were somehow like this cultural gang, right? Which happens now if you think about a common conversation around MS-13 and Mexicans and people at the border. But I also, I remember the day I was in the precinct, just thinking about how people viewed me. I remember one of the, I was in a holding cell by myself for about a day, day and a half, and I remember one of the detectives came by and it might have been lighthearted, might’ve been benign, but it just showed how he saw me, right? He came by, he turned his back towards me and farted in the cell in front of me. And I mean, I might laugh, ha ha ha, it’s benign and didn’t do me any real harm, harm at all. But it, it, it just sort of showed like how we’re viewed. And then once you’re in jail, once you’re in prison, everybody’s in the same sort of boat, right? And the brutality of a prison is not left away from anyone. In fact, I always credit Kalief Browder, um, the brother that, who, you know, who died several years ago, with having so much more courage than I did, he would not allow certain things that we just thought was normal in prison. He wouldn’t accept that. He wouldn’t accept that if you’re not feeding me, the officers ‘say we’re not going to give you food today,’ like that’s, he would fight against that. And for us, for me, when that happened to me, you know, as older people would tell me inside, you know, that’s just part of the bid. Just, you know, you’ve got to handle it it’s better than them taking you out your cell and, you know, beating you and whatnot. And for me it wasn’t until I like listened to some of the things, and I even read some of his reports when he was in college, Kalief Browder I’m speaking about and I said, well, oh goddamn. Like there’s so many things that I just thought it was normal to prison. Well not normal to prison, but how I should be treated, I should say. That was not normal to how to be treated. And I can give you a million stories about how things happen, how we’re treated. But even throughout the, the court process, more importantly, the day of my sentencing, it was hard for me to take that, you know, it took so long for me to feel as if I should have done this time. Right? I didn’t at the time, I didn’t even think police were looking for me initially. I was surprised they came to my house and arrested me in front of my house. I didn’t think they were looking for me three days later. But fast forward to when I was sentenced three years later, I mean, I prepared a speech right? I was very, um, and I just looked it over just the other day at the sentencing. Now really I took responsibility for it. And also, you know, very, very much I wanted to address the family’s of whoever was harmed and no one from the family were there, just my family was there. In the process of the sentencing there is a probation report that has to be put together to see who I am and you know, so I had a whole bunch of awards and certificates from school when I was before and I remember at the sentencing my district attorney had wanted to make sure she put on record that the probation officer who developed a good relationship with my mother because they were talking about who I was, that she thought it was inappropriate the probation officer developed such a relationship with my mother. The report just mentioned all this, you know, all the things I’ve done prior to that date. Prior to that day I did a whole bunch of other things. Right? But it just spoke to that, I mean, at this point in time, three years later, me admitting all the things that I was a part of that there was still a refusal to see me.
Josie: Right. You’re not really human, you’re not, everything, you know, this idea that everything is manipulative versus this is how people interact when they spend a lot of time together.
Clint: So you spent a decade in prison and you were 19 when the event happened and then three years later you’re 22 and you’re doing this at a time when, you know, other people are in college, they’re, you know, having a set of experiences that are, uh, formative to who they are going to be for the rest of their lives and are sort of laying the groundwork for who they are. What is it like to spend such formative years of your young adulthood in an institution that is predicated on stripping you of your agency, that is predicated on structural and interpersonal violence, that is predicated on— what it was it like to come of age in that sort of social context?
Marlon Peterson: I had to decide, I decided that youth was not something I had. I made a conscious decision that youth was not something I gotta have cause I had to figure out how to do that time. Um, as I said, the first three years I was facing life so I didn’t know if I would ever come home.
Marlon Peterson: And then when I finally did get the time, which was somewhat of a relief because I just, at least I knew what my, what the end game was going to be. I was always the youngest person in any of the facilities that I was in, and people were sort of like weirded out by me because I didn’t really converse a lot with folks. I was, you know, it was either in my journal or when I played basketball, you know, I had a whole other personality when I played basketball, but I didn’t engage in a lot of conversations, etcetera. Um, because I kind of realized very quickly like, how I need to survive, who I needed to be. I knew I wasn’t going to join no gangs. Like, I’m not doing that. That’s not who I am. Right? Um, and there were just some things that I saw were always, when you in a prison in a concentrated place of scarcity, anything can become a problem. So like that’s why they have phone issues when people argue over the phone, etcetera. Um, but for me, I knew that I had to be consistent with who I was. So if I’m somebody who’s not engaged in certain activities, I’m not going to be in a gang, I’m not going to do those sort of things. I’m not going to watch certain things that it’s cool to watch on TV or engage in conversation that’s cool like hip hop and whatnot. Like for me it was like these are the things I’m not going to engage in. Even if most 20 year old, 19, 20 year olds would engage in that. There’s nothing wrong with it. I’m like, I’m not doing that. I need to be so focused on survival that I can’t think about playing outside when I go play basketball that’s my playtime. That one hour, that’s play. Outside that there’s no other play to me. I don’t think I fully, that question when I was I think is a very important question, um, Clint, because I don’t think for me at least everyone’s experiences that harm in prison differently. You don’t fully realize the damage is done until you leave it. Cause for what it’s worth, everybody’s dealing with damage in prison. Everybody’s dealing with, so much so that damage doesn’t look like damage. Right? And then when you come home you see like, oh shit, like damn. And I’m not speaking about the things that people think about like waking up with cold sweats and I can’t be in crowds. I mean that is an experience of folks too. But I’m speaking about the loss of youth, right? There’s something that I think even now, I’m now approaching 40 now, right? Next year I’ll be 40 and there’s some things that I realize that like, jeez, I wish I did this. Like I wished I had that, I wish I had got that opportunity uh, you know, to drink at 21. You know what I mean? Or go to use my ID for the first time at a 21 and over club. Simple things that like everybody wants to experience.
Clint: Yeah sort of compounding of a set of experiences that most people take for granted because it’s, it’s like a normative future of, of like what it means to, you know, for most people, certainly not all people and disproportionately not black men, but you know, those, those small experiences, they add up over time. Right? And then you come out after a decade and I can imagine that you’re like-
Josie: And you’re an adult.
Clint: You know, exactly. You know, I’m, I’m an adult and it’s almost like, you know, a thousand tiny pricks.
Josie: Right. And I just imagine like, you know, the things that you get to say, well I did that but I was only 22, you know, the excuses we make for like youth at that time, you don’t, you don’t get the benefit of that. But you said something earlier, you said like, ‘it took me a long time to even think that I deserved that sentence.’ And do you think that you deserved that sentence?
Marlon Peterson: I came up with this quote— in life you get to make your choices, but you don’t get to choose your consequences. And I mean, I wrote that some years ago. I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ll go back and forth with that, uh, Josie, honestly, I go back and forth with what’s deserving because the answer to that question is difficult to answer without being able to communicate with the people who were harmed.
Marlon Peterson: The justice system doesn’t afford you that right? To, to do that outside of if your sentenced, you get to say something before court. Right? But that’s obviously not, it’s not an intimate space. So I grapple with that. But I think it’s within that grappling that we avoid, we’re not speaking about criminal justice reform and we act like there’s this big elephant in the room that we don’t talk about. Like we don’t afford space to do that grappling. I know I was wrong and what I did, but was it 12 years right? Was it, I’ve got a 12 year sentence. I did five years of parole. So all together I did 15 years in the system, right? And do I deserve it? I, there’s days where I feel like, hell no. I could have, like I was in school, I wasn’t a career like stickup kid. I wasn’t that. I wasn’t a stickup kid. So do I think I would’ve went and robbed somebody next week if I didn’t go to jail? No, probably not. Um, I might of just like finished school, you know what I mean? And, you know, gotten something done with myself. Right? I don’t know that obviously, that’s all hypothetical. But the thing is I really believe that there needs to be spaces and that’s part of work that I think, you know, when I write about, and I talk about things like we need to afford spaces to grapple with that nuance because we don’t. Because when you’re not allowed to grapple not only is that problematic for the person individually and traumatic, but like there’s literal collateral consequences to that. Right? So I’m a violent felon for the rest of Marlon’s life I’m a violent felon. Right? I can’t get an AirBnB. Right? I wrote a piece about that a couple of months ago and because of that. If I need to travel, I can’t go to certain countries without getting a whole process done based on was I violent or was I not violent? And there’s no space to grapple with it. Just that what does your record say? You were violent so you just don’t get that thing. You’re never afforded that thing again. It’s interesting though because you just say, I think now as I’ve gotten more access to different spaces, you know, I gave TED Talk, wow, you know, a bunch of people seeing that I get to travel and all that. The more spaces I get into the more discover, oh I’m not supposed to, I can’t get here without this thing. Oh I get, oh I got to do this other thing. Even getting into NYU, I had to go before a committee after I got accepted. And I imagine that of the thousands of people that get into NYU every year, everybody’s going to have an individual conversation.
Josie: Right, right. And so related to that I think is the fact that you have done like an immense amount of work in the criminal justice reform space and also in so many different ways, right? Both in the work that you’re doing now, the work that you did at the Fortune Society. And also like I think when we met, you were working for a, um, in a program in Crown Heights that um, addressed gun violence sort of on a neighborhood level, on a community level, not in a punishment capacity. And it was this really incredible organization that had an impact that really stopped the prevalence of gun violence by engaging young people, giving them tools to kind of deal with, um, some of the harms and trauma that they had dealt with. But you know, that so many people in this space, and we’ve talked about this I think on the show before and, and surely will again, are not people who have been in the system, are not people who have been remanded before trial, are not people who have ever been arrested. So many people in the criminal justice reform space do not have the experience that you have. And so I’m both interested in what that experience is like for you and also how it can feel. I mean, I’m imagining that I think about this sometimes in spaces where we talk about gender violence when there are no women in the room. Like I can imagine that that is both isolating and limiting as we try to solve this problem, this big, you know, problem of mass incarceration.
Marlon Peterson: Yeah, I mean, you know, I host a podcast and it’s about amplifying the journeys of success of people who did time and it doesn’t matter what they did time for, and what got me to that point was, it’s exactly what you’re saying. There is this sort of prized pony sort of way in which we do criminal justice reform, where we had this one person who we say, look at her, look at him, they’re the model. They are the person who’s a formerly incarcerated person who’s in the conversation and propel them up and say, look what she or he is right? That one charismatic person and I’m not knocking, some of these people are my buddies and whatnot. But I’m saying that that’s problematic because it doesn’t speak to the whole it wanted it, you know, you, you, you, you sort sorta like raising one experience up while sort of dismissing all the nuance in that person’s experience, but also the entire field. And I get to be in conversations all over the place around criminal justice issues and there is a certain tokenization of, ‘so as a formerly incarcerated person, I’d like to talk a little about what does the community perspective on this?’ And I get it like I am from the community-
Clint: To speak for the entire 10 million people in our jail every year.
Josie: Right, right, right.
Clint: You’re the one who is, who’s lifted up to speak for it.
Marlon Peterson: I mean, it’s not much different being the only black person in a space. I mean, it’s directly related. It’s, it’s exhausting to answer your question. It is exhausting because a lot of what is fueling the interest in criminal legal spaces also, there is money there. There are millions of dollars in reform now, whatever that might be, for whomever that may be, whatever organization, um, there are celebrity in it now for whomever that may be. And I’m not saying that they aren’t doing good in the process, I’m saying that it sort of creates a space where there is a uninformed analyses driving the conversation. And I think that’s, that’s exhausting to be that person always saying like, ‘that’s wrong. Don’t do that. You’re not, you don’t have full analysis on that.’ Um, because that also creates a space where, you know, there’s this adversarial space amongst advocates and I’m not, I don’t think everybody needs to agree all the time. I always say that everybody is, if you find two people who always agree then there is somebody lyin’ right? So that’s it. But I also think that because what’s fueling a lot of it is not really how this stuff is affecting people but really that is now money there. It’s a career move. I’m gonna become a criminal justice advocate, right? That’s, and there’s nothing wrong, I’m not saying it is wrong, I’m just saying that the motive has to be questioned because if the motives aren’t questioned, then the results are not going to be quite possibly, inefficient.
Clint: And I think that too, you’ve alluded to this tension, but I think it’s really important to think about, you know, there was a moment I remember, you know, in nonprofit space generally in, in, in, in the context of this and criminal justice space where there were no formerly incarcerated people whose voices were being lifted up, right? Like you would go to conferences, you would go to convenings, you would, you know, listen to the Brady, like it was, the people talking about jails and prisons were never people who had been in jails and prisons. And so I think that now we’re in a moment in which you, there are people recognize that if you are working on behalf of the community, you should be lifting up the people who have directly experienced that, whether it be in the context of, you know, criminal justice, food insecurity, poverty writ large, etcetera. But there is this thing of, of what it means to lift up certain stories or certain people at the expense of others. But I think, you know, there’s a difference though, and I think you’re somebody who does this and then there are other folks who are formerly incarcerated who do this, to be lifted up and to position yourself as set authority versus to be lifted up and then to like pull other voices up with you. Right? Like you do that on like very materially because you have the voices of other formerly incarcerated people on a podcast that you have as a result of a platform that you’ve created because of all these opportunities. So, so I just bring that up because I think it is, I don’t want it to come across as if we’re like, and you’ve said this, we’re not knocking people obviously who come into a space that has become, you know, has gotten more intention, has you know as more money in it. But there is something to be said for what it means for any of us in any context when you are lifted up into a position of authority, into a position in which you have an audience, like who are you bringing with you?
Josie: And, and I think the other thing that I have seen or I have felt, and I wonder have you felt this too? And I think again like, like you said it, you could analogize it to a lot of other things being a woman and being black and it’s not like the exact same, right? But it’s the same sort of thing which is like it can end up being definitional, which is like you spent 10 years in prison and that is part of your story. Here are the other things that are part of your story. This is not the only thing about you. And I wonder if also it can end up being one dimensional. Make you feel like people see you one dimensionally or that you’re treated one dimensionally when you are one of these people who when you look at the work you’ve done, you’ve done it in all kinds of spaces with all kinds of people for much longer, I think, than many people have been doing this work.
Marlon Peterson: I mean, listen, I’m, I’m thankful that I get to have a, my little 2 cents in any conversation. Um, but, uh, you know, one of the things I think about as we all know in a space of progress where folks are now gaining access, this is good. This is good progress, this is good stuff, is that the only place for people who are, who have had this experience is in a place of advocacy and activism. Um, and I, you know, there are 7 million people who have a criminal conviction, you know, 20 million people with a felony in America. These folks are at your barber shop, um, they at your supermarket, some of them are working in, in schools in various capacities. Some of them working in hospitals like everywhere, your Uber driver, whoever it is, right? And I think, but many of these folks have to live this sort of life in the shadows. So there’s a person I just recently met who has, who did 11 years in the federal system and has a lucrative vodka brand and it’s making, he lives on top of, he lives above Barclay’s. Just give you that, right? And I was like, ‘hey, you know, would you mind coming to podcast, da, da, da’ he was like, ‘you know, I’d love to, I mean when I get to speak to people like in the school how to do that, but I don’t like talking about it cause it will affect my clients and investors.’ Um, because the stigma is still there. It’s still, it’s still there and, and, and the only place right now where many of us seem to be excepted are in this space. And I’m saying that advocacy doesn’t have to always be where, I’m at a policy conference. If I happen to have a water bottle company that’s advocacy. Look what I’m also able to contribute. This is the skill set I also have.
Clint: But I think to your point, what’s interesting is that it’s interesting to think about how one of the only spaces in which someone can be forthright about their past holistically is if you are an activist or advocate working in criminal justice because in every other space it hurts you. It’s detrimental, right? What works in this space it’s central to a narrative of, of work that you were doing. You know, if you have a vodka company or are you making water bottles, whatever the job is, it threatens your wellbeing. That’s the wellbeing of your family and a whole host of people who count on you.
Josie: And I think this encompasses what we talk about often on the show, which is like you can get, because, you know, we spend all of our time doing this. Like I spend all of my time and a lot of my mental space talking and thinking about this system and with people who also are talking and thinking about this system and you can forget that like the rest of the world is not, not that you actually forget it, but in practice you can hear someone say something like ‘that convict’ or whatever and you’re like, whoa, this is how, you know, it’s, it’s not, we’re getting better, but not everybody is getting better all of the time on this topic, you know?
Marlon Peterson: Well, definitely not. It’s still, listen, it’s a, it’s still very much a fringe topic that has an imagery of a black man of it, right? And now we are in a place where, because women have taken a mantle, are like, ‘hey, no, this is also us,’ you know, um, and which is also progress I’m glad to be able to see and be a part of. We still have not been able to see the full width and breadth of the human capacity of people who have had that experience, that lived experience. Um, so you’re relegated to the criminal justice advocacy platform. There’s still work to be done there. A lot to be done there. Um, but I would love to see television programs that infuse people with that experience without them having to be, but without the experience being the full character, right? It’s sort of like, I recall Roseanne show. This is back when-
Josie: The original Roseanne?
Marlon Peterson: The original Roseanne, right? And I didn’t watch it but I remember it being on the news. It was a big thing when I think Roseanne’s sister came out as being gay. Right? I, I just remember that was on the news. I don’t think I’ve ever really watched the show, but that was a thing, a gay character. She’s a gay character. And it got to the point now where people happen to be a gay person on the show, but they’re not the gay character. They’re just a person on the show. That’s just who they are. And we need to move to the point where people with these experiences are also, um, not the formerly incarcerated character only. Uh, but that happens to be a part of who they are. Because like, even when I had mentioned, I spoke about the sentencing and the probation report, everything before 19 years old was me being a successful, for the most part, a successful student. You know, and worked at the New York City Opera and did all that sort of stuff. People like what? Brooklyn? New York City Opera? Um, and then the next 10 years is that thing. Um, but I’m just saying that there’s a full, there’s a full human character to, to all of us and we need to be able to afford the space to express that.
Clint: So as we end, I’m curious as someone who has experienced incarceration personally as someone who, uh, and now someone who does this work in advocacy in a writing capacity, um, or thinks about this in all these different facets of your life, what do you envision a more just criminal legal system looking like? Like what is, cause clearly what you experienced and so much of what we see now isn’t just, it’s not justice. What is that more just world look like to you?
Marlon Peterson: When you turn on the news and you hear, you see that story about this crime that just happened. I want people to be asking what happened to that person to get her or him to do that thing? I mean that is the hard, Clint, like that is a hard question, right? It is hard. I mean we can think about all these reports of these stories. Um, but we have to start from why does that person react or respond to his or her life this way. I remember going to a funeral, I was working with, while I was at the Fortune Society, I was working with a young family of a young man who was killed. He was 19 and I remember going to the funeral and it was, you know, a bunch of his friends that age and you know, boys trying to act like they not crying with they shades on and girls crying and some acting like they not crying too as young folks do, um, and I remember the person giving the eulogy, a friend of mine is a pastor and he had spoke about this dash of the headstone and he spoke about it in relation to, you know, what life, which are legacy would be for between that dash, call it a dash— the time when you were born to the time you passed. And I took it completely differently. Um, while understanding that I was thinking more so about the dash in that person’s life that let her or him to now become that person who cause the kid was in a gang, right. Um, but what was the dash? What experience that happened in her or his life that got them to be this, to do these things? Could always look at, you look at a baby, Josie, you got a beautiful young baby, right? And you want, and when I saw the picture, you just want to kiss, you want to hold, you want to cuddle and say all sorts of incoherent things that you think kids understand. And at some point, you know, 10 years later, 15 years later, 20 years later, this person got a mugshot or they’re carrying a gun or whatever it is, and like that baby was that baby. That baby didn’t come out wanting to be that way.
Clint: Like so many other babies-
Marlon Peterson: All babies come out, you know what I mean?
Clint: Something happened along the way.
Marlon Peterson: Something, so I think it’s, you know, to bookend it, uh, you know, the question what’s a just world look like, I think we need to get to the point where I believe in, you know, I believe is abolition, that we need to envision a world without prisons, but in order to get to that place, we need to be thinking about what are the things happening to these folks first. Because what prison does is punish. It does it hella good, right? Because it doesn’t see a full person it sees the act only.
Clint: And it doesn’t see the history that created the conditions of the community in which certain trajectories are created for people.
Marlon Peterson: We have so much research to tell that these things happen, what’s going on in these communities, right? Women, we understand that the majority of women who end up in prison have been sexually abused. We have the research there. Our current justice system doesn’t have a protocol, doesn’t have a processes for weighing that, at all. Um, and I think and that’s because we just don’t really, we don’t care. We don’t want to invest in that, we just don’t care. We know the research is there. Everybody could talk about some book, New Jim Crow, whatever it is, you can talk about a book. You can Google it. You can look on your Instagram or whatever. You can see it. I’m just saying that to get to that point where you think about a more just world we have to see I like to say, we have to see the justice in ourselves because so many of us react in ways that are harmful every day, whether it be in very minute ways and we’re always reacting to some past experience and we want justice. We want somebody to be able to, in order for us to get justice in our own selves, we need to be able to look at ourselves and think about why am I reacting this way? And I think that the thing about what a more just world looks like, not only do we need to do that for ourselves, but we also need to think about doing that for others.
Josie: Yeah, that is, I love that. And Marlon, thank you so much for joining us today. You’ve been a friend to both of us, you’ve been a mentor and a leader in this space and we admire and appreciate the work you are doing and are so glad that you joined us.
Marlon Peterson: Thanks for having me, I appreciate ya’ll too. We go way back.
Josie: We sure do. All across the country.
Josie: That was Marlon Peterson, a writer and the host of a podcast called DEcarcerated. Thank you so much for joining us Marlon.
Clint: And thank you for listening to Justice in America. I’m Clint Smith.
Josie: I’m Josie Duffy Rice.
Clint: You can find us on Twitter at @Justice_Podcast, like our Facebook page at Justice in America and subscribe and rate us on iTunes. Everything really helps.
Josie: Justice in America is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams and our production Assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Thanks and talk to you next week.