Corey Harris, the Michigan man who was caught on camera driving on a suspended license, shouldn’t be in jail

OPINION: We send way too many people to jail for nonviolent crimes.

Judge J. Cedric Simpson and Corey Harris. (Screenshot via YouTube)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

The story of Corey Harris, the Michigan man who was caught on camera driving with a suspended license, was funny at the beginning, but it’s become something much more grim. 

Panama Jackson wrote about how funny it all was, and the entire internet got a laugh out of watching this man happily pull into a parking spot at the start of his Zoom court hearing, which was about driving with a suspended license. A moment later, he found out that he had messed up big time. For sure, Harris’ face when he realized that this was going in a bad direction was hysterical.  

But now the story has changed. Now, it’s about the fact that Harris has never had a Michigan driver’s license, which means that he was never legally allowed to drive. Harris had a bench warrant for arrest from nine years ago for driving with a suspended license, which is why he was sent back to jail on Wednesday. You want to laugh because Harris has made several bad decisions and worked himself into this position all by himself. But I can’t laugh at this brother’s misfortune because I’m stuck on this question: Why is the answer to send him to jail? Why is the justice system set up to send someone who’s committed that crime to jail?  

For sure, Harris has broken the law, and I think it makes sense for the state to require every motorist to have a valid driver’s license. At the very least that means that the state knows every driver has had lessons on how to drive and that should, in theory, make the roads safer. It would be chaos to let people get in cars and drive without having learned the rules of the road and the ways to drive safely. But if you’ve broken that law without harming anyone why do you go to jail? 

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It’s easy for most people to conceive of criticism for individuals — Harris should’ve just gotten his license or not driven. He should’ve just complied. Sure. True. But what about criticizing the system? What about challenging the institutions to do better? What about saying why are we sending this man to jail over the crime of driving without a license? There are so many ways to punish him — they could fine him, they could impound his car, they could suspend his right to drive (again). By putting him in jail, you are putting him in a traumatizing experience that could have a profound impact on his life. Putting him in jail means taking away his freedom, putting him at risk of being beaten up by other inmates or by the police, and putting him at risk of losing his job. Even if he’s away for just a short period of time, it could lead to huge problems in his life. Does the punishment really fit the crime?

I wish Mr. Harris had made different choices, and he deserves to be punished, but really, the system deserves to be questioned. Why is jail appropriate for a non-violent offender like Harris? Why is a punishment as drastic as jail not reserved for people who have committed much more serious, violent offenses? Taking away someone’s freedom is a very serious thing. Driving without a license should not be punished by taking away his freedom.


Touré, theGrio.com

Toure is a host and writer at TheGrio. He hosts the TheGrio TV show “Masters of the Game,” and he created the award-winning podcast “Being Black: The ’80s” and its upcoming sequel “Being Black: The ’70s.” He is also the creator of “Star Stories” and the author of eight books, including “Nothing Compares 2 U an oral history of Prince.” He also hosts a podcast called “Toure Show.” He is also a husband and a father of two.

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