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Locking 'em up and throwing away the key? How's that working out for ya'?

Linda Wilkins-Daniels insists that she is soft-spoken,

"on the quiet side."

"I'm an introvert," she told me. "I don't like being out front."

Unless, that is, she's confronting a judicial system that she feels is about to railroad some poor schnook.

Then she becomes - if not a superwoman able to leap tall buildings at a single bound - at least a ferocious fighter on their behalf.

Ricky Ellis can tell you what kind of fighter Wilkins-Daniels is.

When I spoke with him, Ellis, 48, acknowledged that

he has been "dirty," that he deservedly went to prison

on drug charges. He swears, though, that he had put

that life behind him and was

innocent when, around 2010, he found himself in front

of a Wayne County judge.

Remember the Dr. John classic "I was in the right

place, but it must've been the wrong time"?

Ellis said he was visiting a friend's house, sitting on a bed playing Candy Crush on his phone and waiting for his ride home, when the cops burst in and popped him for drugs they found in the home.

When the Wayne County District Attorney offered him a plea deal of 14 years, he considered taking it because as a "three-strikes" offender, he could've been looking at far more than that.

That's when Wilkins-Daniels, currently executive director of both A New Hope, Inc. and the African American Caucus of the N.C. Democratic Party, entered the picture and convinced him to pass on that "deal."

"I saw the way his public defender was talking to him, disrespectfully, like he was less than human. I told him not to take the deal because he wasn't guilty," she said.

After much back-and-forth, she said, Ellis walked out of court with her and with probation, although he eventually ended up serving 11 months for violating probation.

Is Wilkins-Daniels an attorney?

Nope. She is, she said, simply someone who wants to help people who are being victimized by this country's overpowering thirst to lock people up.

"I'd gotten out of the Air Force after 22 years," she said, had moved around a lot "and I wanted to get somewhere and get involved in my community." She settled in Goldsboro.

"I started going down to the courthouse ," she said, "and watching trials."

What she saw was judges handing out time - as Richard Pryor once said - like it was lunch.

"Angela Davis called it the 'prison industrial complex'. What we have now is the prison industrial complex on steroids, because it's gotten exponentially worse," she said.

"I'm a Democrat, but both parties are responsible for this mass incarceration problem," she said. " "At one time, I was so angry with Bill Clinton, appalled" at the way he introduced the dreaded "three strikes and you're out" laws.

"But then I started looking back and listening to some of the things said by black leaders during the crack cocaine epidemic, and they were asking for tough sentences," she said.

In 2015, Bill Clinton acknowledged his role in the prison population explosion. "I signed a bill that made the problem worse," he said, "and I want to admit it. It put 100,000 more police officers on the streets but locked up "minor actors for way too long."

I guarantee you that Orlander Bynum, of Garysburg, would like a chance to tell the former president where he can stick his apology. Bynum in 1991 was no drug kingpin, but he was sentenced to 135 years in prison for six counts of drug trafficking. When he sawed his way out of his cell and escaped, District Court Judge Albert Kwasikpui labeled him an "outlaw": that meant that anyone - I mean anyone - could shoot him on sight without facing any consequences.

Because, you know, drugs.

That law had already been ruled unconstitutional, but that didn't stop the judge.

How, I asked Wilkins-Daniels, can we realistically reform a criminal justice system that often forces innocent people to plead guilty just so they won't be slammed with decades or life behind bars?

"We can get rid of the bail bond system for minor offenses. That system exploits the poor," she said, before naming examples of people who she said have been jailed for years awaiting trial.

Wilkins-Daniels wants it made clear that she isn't arguing that prisons should be abolished, that the doors flung open and everyone should be sent skipping down the lane on his or her merry way. What she is arguing, though, is that sentences should be fair, uniform and bear some relation to the actual crime.

The N.C. Department of Public Safety estimates that it costs $35,949 per year to keep an inmate in medium custody, which is where Bynum is. That means we've already spent $970,623 keeping that dude locked up.

By the time he reaches his projected release date of 2045 on the last of the charges - which were stacked on top of each other like salami on a Dagwood sammitch - keeping him off the street will have cost us another $970,623.

Who thinks that's a good deal - for us or for him?

More than a decade ago, I got into a nasty exchange with a reader who objected to my writing that something has to be done about the long sentences handed out to non-violent drug offenders.

"We don't have to do nothin' about that," he spat, so angry that I could almost see the spittle flying from his mouth despite being on the phone.

"Oh, so you don't mind spending more and more money on taxes to keep some chump locked up for selling a nickel bag of reefer?" I asked.

Without hesitation, he responded "Naw!"

Well, darn it, I do.

And if you pay taxes, you do, too.




Meet Barry Saunders

For over 20 years, Barry was a columnist for The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC. He also wrote for other publications, such as the Atlanta Constitution and the Richmond County Daily Journal. Often described as powerfully honest and illustratively funny, Barry's writing is both loved and hated by readers- sometimes simultaneously.  


Want more? Get your own copy of one of Barry's published books featuring reader favorites (and not so favorites) from his years writing columns for The News & Observer. Titled "Do Unto Others...And then Run" and "...And The Horse You Rode In On Saunders!", they're full of guaranteed entertainment. 


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