In January, we wrote about the particularly disturbing case of Kelley Williams-Bolar, an African-American single mother convicted of two felonies and facing prison time because she used her father's address on a school enrollment form so that her daughter could attend a safer school.
Williams-Bolar lived in Akron, Ohio, in a school district that, like many urban districts populated predominantly by poor people of color, is understaffed and underfunded. Although the judge suspended the sentence to 10 days jail time and probation, Williams-Bolar's status as a "felon" barred her from ever being able to obtain a teaching license, a credential she was working toward. By February, the highly publicized case prompted Ohio governor John Kasich to ask the state parole board to review Williams-Bolar's prison term.
Although the news of Williams-Bolar's commutation is good news for Williams-Bolar, her daughter and the individuals who petitioned on her behalf, we should not lose sight of the larger problem. Williams-Bolar is hardly the only mother forced to resort to such desperate measures to secure a decent educational environment for their children. Countless other parents continue to face charges and languish in prison because their cases have not garnered as much public attention. In addition to serving prison time, they are branded with the status of "felon" for the rest of their lives, which devastates their employment prospects and with it their ability to better provide for their children.
Our criminal laws and sentencing policies needlessly inflict grossly disproportionate punishments upon generally good and decent citizens who pose little threat to public safety. And our criminal justice system enforces these punishments selectively against certain subgroups, like low-income mothers of color. Williams-Bolar's tragic case is not only unjust and shocking to the conscience; it is yet one more example of America's continuing addiction to incarceration. Prosecutions of this type are a frivolous waste of fiscal resources, and the cost of incarcerating such harmless defendants further compounds this wastefulness. The need to reexamine our entire justice system — including what we choose to criminalize, whom we prosecute and incarcerate, and why - has never been more urgent than now.