By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D.
The Truth Contributor
Do not judge me by my successes. Judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.
– Nelson Mandela
Yvonne Harper was one of three former City of Toledo Councilmembers to plead guilty last week after being arrested for taking cash in return for political favors.
Stunned by the councilmembers’ arrests in July 2020, the guilty pleas totally deflated the Black community. Many of us believed that perhaps the arrests were a racially-motivated setup directed at those who, at the time, constituted one-third of Toledo City Council.
We were sad because so many of us supported them for so long. We had hoped they would lift the community that had been down for so long. We had hoped that they would be completely exonerated. Yet, those hopes seemed to die with the announcement of the guilty pleas.
Yet, even when things do not go as expected, I believe God always has a plan.
I caught up with former councilmember Yvonne Harper as she was preparing to travel to Kokomo, Indiana. She was excited to hear her new pastor preach his final sermon before arriving in Toledo to take the reins of her beloved Indiana Avenue Missionary Baptist Church.
Yes, Harper had accepted a plea deal that dropped bribery and extortion charges in return for a guilty plea on a single conspiracy case. But, rather than slinking depressed into a corner, she seemed upbeat despite her traumatic encounter with the criminal justice system. “I’ve laid low on social media, just trying to stay out of the way, but I’m going to be okay. So don’t worry about me,” she said.
Being active in a supportive church has been a blessing to Harper.
In most Black churches, the criminal justice system has impacted almost every member. If it is not the member themselves directly, then a child or other relative has been incarcerated. The justice system touches the entire Black church from the leadership down, including those who work inside it. Members just aren’t vocal about it. Instead, they provide support quietly because of the shame and stigma associated with having a felony or criminal record.
Even with tremendous support from the community and her church, Harper remains concerned about the sentencing, “although I’ve never been in trouble like this ever,” she opined.
Harper will be sentenced in June by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Helmick. Her guilty plea agreement on the conspiracy charge calls for a sentence between two and three years in prison.
I asked Yvonne about her thinking and the rationale behind the guilty plea, but she declined to respond.
However, a legal source who did not want to be identified agreed to weigh in. The source surmised that the prosecution might not have direct evidence that Harper took the funds she allegedly received illegally. Instead, the funds went ‘to or through attorney Keith Mitchell,’ now deceased. “I think the plea offer was important and beneficial because Yvonne doesn’t want people to feel like she took a bribe,” the legal expert added.
Given that she has no prior criminal history and limited income, Harper likely will end up facing more like 16-24 months plus a fine, according to federal sentencing guidelines. However, other similar cases in Ohio have a sentencing of eight to nine months.
Nevertheless, rather than incarceration, Judge Helmick could also place Harper under house arrest or probation, given her long stellar career of serving this community.
What does the future hold?
The tragedy of making a mistake or falling lies in staying down and failing to bounce back up. Just because a person has a felony, criminal record, or been incarcerated doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a second chance.
Harper is praying that she will not do any prison time, given that she has no prior record. She even plans to remain active in the Democratic Party. She may even run again for Toledo City Council unless legislation forbids it.
Yet, what would be even more remarkable is for Harper to turn her pain into real power by using her experience to help others obtain a second chance.
I would love to see Harper reinvent herself as a community advocate for returning citizens and those coming through the criminal justice system.
Using the skills she learned as a councilmember, she could help point people in the right direction and connect community members to those that can help them.
Now, Harper is in a position to help educate others on the issue of mass incarceration. She can also help others to be more sympathetic to the problem of selective enforcement of nonviolent crime, which is 100 times harsher in sentencing Black and brown citizens than others.
Nevertheless, there are some valuable lessons to be learned from our mistakes over the course of our lives.
Sometimes God shakes things up in life so that we can rebuild them better or reinvent ourselves. Sometimes we are called from one method to a different method to do the same work.
We all fall, but do we get back up and reinvent ourselves by turning our pain into others’ power?
Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, PhD, at firstname.lastname@example.org