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Turning a Big Ship

"It takes a long time to turn big ships." That’s what a colleague told me as we talked about a legal system that often staunchly adheres to old ways of doing and being and thinking in spite of concrete evidence that contradicts antiquated ideology. It takes a long time to turn big ships.

My family is a military family. We spent three decades PCSing to different duty stations around the world. Moving from one military town to another was our norm. That’s just what we did. And for over thirty years, we were surrounded by others who did the same. And because people are rarely from the place they’re stationed, it also became the norm for me to ask everyone I met, “Where are you from?”

I’ve learned that where a person is from often tells you a boatload about him or her. Of course, you want to take the time to know people and not just rely on broad generalizations, but finding out where a person is from definitely gives you a head start.

Over the years I’ve learned that people from the East coast think very differently from people from the West coast. Northerners often hold very different views from Southerners. And our different ways of thinking impact every aspect of our lives—from our politics to our religion to our music preferences. I am a proud Detroiter. I love the history of my hometown. Only Detroit can boast of being the original home of the U.S. auto industry and world-famous Motown music. Detroiters love our Lions and Tigers and Pistons! Oh my! Even in its darkest days—and, admittedly, we’ve seen quite a few—Detroiters show themselves tough. We’re not quick to turn back from a fight—be it economical, racial, or political. It’s just not in us. I was a teenager in Detroit during the 80s. I vividly recall seeing the impact that crack cocaine had on my eastside, low-income neighborhood. It made some money; it made even more monsters—slaves to their addiction. But what the drug epidemic itself did to our community was nothing in comparison to the government's response.

I would be an adult before I would begin to realize the toll that mandatory sentencing and mass incarceration would have not just on Detroit but on our nation as a whole. The collateral consequences of the tough-on-crime policies of the 80s and 90s are still reverberating throughout many communities in our nation in the form of broken families and shattered lives, and the tidal waves—not ripples—will continue to be felt for decades and decades to come.

The lesson. Tough-on-crime policies didn’t work. They still don’t work. They won’t ever work. Feel free to start turning this ship any time now.

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