A Clean Slate

Shihab Jackson
A Clean Slate
Shihab Jackson in the 22nd Circuit Court – 9/19/2023

My name is Shihab Jackson, from Ann Arbor, MI. I was recently charged with five felonies carrying a total of 19 years in prison for felon in possession of a firearm and resisting arrest. I accept full accountability for all my actions and am not seeking a get-out-jail-free card. I just want to pay my debt to society and be free. My case may be described as a crime of survival, except mine involved no violence, no victim, no damage to property, no theft, and no fraud. Please keep that in mind. I work odd labor jobs in wealthy areas. I’m active in my community and publicly challenge systemic oppression: I leave it to you to gather a sense of how much of a dangerous criminal I am. Let’s get into it.  

Traffic quotas. They play an extremely impactful role in systemic disparities.  We know certain people get pulled over more often, we know stop-and-frisk laws were popularized specifically targeting certain people, and we know the criminal justice system doles out disparate punishments to certain groups, especially for certain crimes. Studies strongly demonstrate police contact through traffic stops is the gateway to lengthy legal ordeals down the line.  The order of operations goes: traffic stop, unrelated charges, guilty verdict. In that order. An efficient system for securing easy convictions.

My arrest footage reveals this pretextual pattern. I am pulled over in a residential neighborhood for defective brake lights/failure to signal, then eventually arrested for contraband and resisting arrest. During the arrest, I am repeatedly told the reason for the stop: broken brake light and failure to signal. In other words my defective brake light drew police attention to me and gave them reason to pull me over, resulting in my arrest on unrelated charges. This is a legal method used to target and extract maximum criminal charges from (poor) people for their defective car equipment. Methods like this merit particular attention because even though they are legal these methods disparately impact certain groups. 

So during this traffic stop why did I have a handgun I wasn’t “supposed” to have? Simple: protection. And it wasn’t from lack of effort to be as legal as possible. This is not complicated; I’ve been robbed at gunpoint for all my belongings, including my social security card, and can’t have that happen again.   It is often ignored that people like me are the likeliest demographic to be victimized by violent crimes especially robbery.  Also, because of my work I encounter dangerous wild animals like rabid racoons and aggressive strays. That’s why I had a pistol. Do I not have the right to self protection and safety?

“That is why I had to turn down the plea deal offered to me: plead guilty to three felonies in exchange for no upfront jail time.”

I feel my case isn’t complicated. People who feel under existential threat arm themselves for protection. The 2020 surge in anti-Asian violence saw Asian-Americans buying up arms in response. One fifth of Democrats own guns, and their most stable voter base, black women, are the fastest growing group of gun owners in America. Jewish Americans, who have traditionally maintained the lowest rates of gun ownership among all religious groups, have seen recent surges in gun ownership in direct response to rising antisemitism. Vulnerable people possessing firearms for self protection is kind of, you know, a thing.  Circumstances matter. 

Post-pandemic days in Washtenaw County saw concerning levels of violence especially for folks like me. And those are just the official numbers.  This all is despite the plethora of lucrative yet shady Democrat-sponsored “violence-prevention programs.”  Well, what happened? 2023 was especially bad. Again, do I not have a right to safety and self protection? 

Democratic leaders talk a good game. By their accounts, my case is a classic example of bad policy. Charismatic cop Derrick Jackson (no relation) explains in his TED talk that “…a crime has to have been committed, someone has to have been victimized for me [the police] to take action.” His boss agrees.  Discussing the harm of pretext stops, Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton (Democrat) reiterates, 

“It’s not legitimate for us in our profession [law enforcement] to say: ‘we’re taking more guns off the streets, we’re saving lives because we’re putting bad guys away,’ and the collateral damage is we’re harming black and brown communities. That’s not acceptable.”

Very well put. So what gives? Why is my case being prosecuted so vigorously, by progressives, despite public commitments not to? Quite simply, my case is the “collateral damage” the Sheriff mentioned. That’s it.   

Given all of the above, the lived experience of folks like me, under continuous overpolicing and overprosecuting, is simply not a credible matter to Washtenaw County courts. At every step of my legal process the courts have dismissed even the mere suggestion that disparities from biased systemic overpolicing may have a hand in my case. I find this troubling.

The basis for prosecuting my case is because of who I am, not what I did.  Let’s unpack: the term “felon” seems direct and neutral–one who commits felonies. But credible research shows the word ‘felon’ has become a dog-whistle for overt bias in legal practice, as we know certain groups are much more likely to be felons. That’s no excuse for violent or dangerous behavior–but when “nearly three-fourths (72.1%) of prisoners are serving time for a non-violent offense and have no history of violence” then the convenience of assuming all felons are violent (or even pose the threat of violence) is outright harmful. Yet it is common legal practice to do so, and being done to me. Not to mention the racial component.

Enhanced punishments for felons are particularly disparate in Washtenaw County. My criminal history involves no violence or victims–just “felonious” contraband possession. Yet on paper I am legally no different from a child predator, human trafficker, or murderer; we are all ‘felons.’ Overcharging and coercive plea offers play direct roles in my case. The courts leverage the threat of enhanced punishments to coerce folks like me into hurried guilty pleas to lesser felony charges in exchange for light or no jail time.  The incentive to avoid immediate jail results in many defendants pleading guilty to permanent felony charges that are difficult/impossible to expunge later. All of this together produces an ongoing legal doom-cycle for nonviolent felons like me. 

‘Rally for Jackson’ outside the 22nd Circuit Court – 6/13/23

This is key: the prosecutor is stacking charges on me ensuring I remain a felon for life. Access to employment, housing, travel, marriage, finances, voting, education, and general quality of living are all deeply affected. For life. For non-violent victimless ‘crimes!’ This ordeal includes the years-long process it takes for expungement eligibility under current rules. That is why I had to turn down the plea deal offered to me: plead guilty to three felonies in exchange for no upfront jail time. If I am being offered no jail time then the “crime” clearly isn’t serious enough to warrant a lengthy felony record.  I don’t think being coerced into being a lifetime felon in exchange for no upfront jail time is fair, so I’m sharing my story to better inform policymakers, activists and citizens.   

Candidate Eli Savit revealed a key fact during his campaign: criminal cases do not get handled by ‘the system,’ they get handled by the prosecutor. Traditionally, the prosecutor’s only objective is to secure convictions.  This approach is standard legal practice and provides incentive for ambitious attorneys to secure convictions at any cost, often at the expense of underrepresented defendants.  Savit distinguished himself by promising to bring bold reform and compassion to this system –it’s exactly what got him elected. That is the frustration here. Please remember: “Prosecutors are the gateway to the criminal justice system and they are the most powerful player in it.” 

When the Grady Els, a black couple from Ypsi, were violently assaulted by Washtenaw County Deputies in 2020, county prosecutor Eli Savit promised to bring change. The assault, which was recorded, triggered waves of protests around Washtenaw, spotlighting our community’s disparate criminal justice system. Savit got his job appealing to the public appetite for reform, especially rehabilitating the relationship between the criminal justice system and the marginalized communities it impacts most. Bringing up the voices and concerns of the historically underrepresented was core to his election.

Sadly, another “progressive” prosecutor, Attorney General Dana Nessel decided to pursue charges against the Grady ElsOn Dec. 4th, 2023, me, Sha’Teina Grady El, and Daniyal Grady El will be on trial in the same courthouse, at the same time. Both prosecutors will likely dismiss public concerns over these three sensitive cases by reiterating something like they’re civil servants “just doing their jobs.” In effect our so-called-progressive prosecutors issued a colossal middle finger towards Ypsi’s most marginalized constituents and their allies. Two-for-one holiday special. Truly shameful.

So I ask readers, the police, the prosecutors, and most of all, the lawmakers of the Washtenaw County Democratic Party: does my life not matter? Do circumstances in my case not matter at all? Do I not have the right to self protection? Do I pose enough danger to society to warrant prison for a victimless crime? Why do our leaders systemically mistreat folks like me, their most critical voter base? Why should our voting community keep supporting those who routinely take us for granted?  

The order of operations goes: traffic stop, unrelated charges, guilty verdict. In that order.

I’m writing this days from trial, in the bowels of Ypsilanti, MI, on a broken laptop with hotspot wifi and the oven as a space heater. I’m under-resourced swinging up against a mighty system designed to grind people like me to dust. But I refuse to go silently into the night. Because fuck that. 

I feel the only proper outcome is to pay my debt to society and be free. That can assume many forms; legal remedies are complicated by design. I’ll do some time if that’s what it takes, even though I don’t think that’s right. Reducing or dismissing traffic-stop-gun-charges altogether is not an unreasonable request from the prosecutor… he will happily do so as long as you’re politically useful, well-represented, or good at sportsball. My best case scenario is the prosecutor dropping my charges altogether–as if I were a D1 athlete. But if I were a politician, I would do everything in my legal power to secure the conviction and make an example out of someone like me too. So since I’m not a D1 athlete I am willing to do some time behind bars for my non-violent offense if the case gets dismissed upon release. I feel that’s a win-win for everyone.

I simply seek a future free of the non-violent criminal record keeping me trapped in the legal doom-cycle.  It is no coincidence that Washtenaw County has one of the highest recidivism rates in the state. I am not trying to avoid punishment. I’ll do some time. I just feel the issues I bring up are valid, even if our courts don’t feel the same. My ultimate aim is to clear my non-violent criminal record and free myself of the lifelong stigma of ‘felon’ once and for all, and live as a fully free and productive citizen.  Consider that Martin Luther King Jr. was denied his legal permit under the same disparate biases keeping me from obtaining mine today.  Again, I just want to pay my debt to society and be free.  These aren’t unreasonable goals are they? 

Please, drop/reduce the charges or clear my non-violent record after I serve the time. So long as no violence, no victim, no theft, no fraud, no damage to property amounts to a proportional outcome: no lengthy criminal record. I’ll do some time for my ‘felonious’ traffic stop if that’s what our progressive prosecutor wants. I don’t think I should, but I’m willing to for a clean slate. I feel like that’s fair. In the words of Derrick Jackson “why not understand the root cause of the crime and prevent it from ever happening again?” Circumstances matter. That’s the sort of meaningful criminal justice reform the voter base was promised after all, isn’t it

Trial is set for Dec. 4, 2023. Washtenaw County 22nd Circuit Court, Ann Arbor. 

Stay tuned. 

– S. Jackson

P.S. The heartbreaking thing is, there is so much opportunity for a good story here. Reform, redemption, and the jubilee of freedom. Shame it has to be like this. 


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