BY BARRINGTON M. SALMON -CONTRIBUTING WRITER-
Years of meetings, arguments, discussions, progress, setbacks, squabbles and formal and informal confabs among politicians, formerly incarcerated individuals, criminal justice advocates, policymakers, crime survivors, and others produced a result recently, that left people like Louis Reed, Erin Haney and Van Jones stunned but elated.
They had been shuttling between Capitol Hill and the White House, moving among offices of senators and House members trying to nail down a deal on what is now being hailed as the most consequential changes to criminal justice in a generation.
The bill that became the First Step Act brought together an unlikely coalition of supporters, organizations like #cut50, Freedomworks, the American Conservative Union, Americans for Tax Reform, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Rep. Hakeem Jefferies of New York, Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the influential Judiciary Committee, the Institute for Prison Ministries and the Koch Brothers-backed Right on Crime.
With broad bipartisan support, the bill passed 87-12 in the U.S. Senate and 358 to 36 in the House, but not without a fight from fierce critics like Sens. Tom Cotton (RAR) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), and equivocation from Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell over whether to bring the bill to the floor for a vote as 2018 came to an end. President Donald Trump signed the bill into law on Dec. 21, 2018.
“I believe in God, faith, miracles and divine timing. God chose this time,” said Louis L. Reed, national organizer for #cut50 since June of this year, a criminal justice reform strategist and formerly incarcerated person who served 14 years in federal prison for embezzlement and possession of ammunition. “We made more than 100 trips to Congress advocating and pushing this bill. It speaks to commitment and passion of those involved. The bill died and was revived 1,000 times,” he said.
“I got 99 problems with Trump but criminal justice isn’t one. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about the fierce urgency of now. This was such a situation.”
Mr. Reed credited Kim Kardashian, who he said softened Mr. Trump, as well as Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner. “Also, the leadership of Van Jones, myself, Topeka K. Sam and other advocates laid the groundwork for this,” he exulted.
# Cut50 was co-founded by Mr. Jones, host of the “Van Jones Show” on CNN, and Jessica Jackson Sloan, a human rights attorney and national director of the organization. According to its website,#cut50 is a criminal justice reform
advocacy group whose national bipartisan efforts are aimed at reducing America’s incarceration rate.
A Final Call reporter caught up with Erin Haney of #Cut50, moments after the House vote. “It’s a really big deal. A really big deal. I’m emotional, so thrilled,” said Ms. Haney, who worked as a death penalty attorney for more than 10 years. “I’m really proud of this landmark legislation. It’s monumental. A lot of the story has been bipartisan. There were a lot of people in this struggle. This reform really got started under the Obama administration. It is a long, long time in the making. This bill stands on the shoulders of others,” she said.
“It has been political dynamite but it was really led by formerly incarcerated individuals,” she continued. “They told stories, had a seat at the table, amplified the voices of those who’re behind bars. The narrative was informed and fought by people with lived experiences. What it meant was that you couldn’t hold onto Willie Horton. People like Topeka Sam have been working for justice and have shown how enhanced the world is with them in it.”
Topeka K. Sam, a Justice in Education scholar, is a prison reform advocate and the director of Cut 50’s #Dignity campaign. She served three years in federal prison following a drug sting. She founded and is executive director of Ladies of Hope Ministries which helps women and girls transition from prison back into society through education, entrepreneurship, and advocacy.
Despite elation with its passage, both critics and advocates say the law will only modestly reform the criminal justice system. Furthermore, it will only affect those in the federal system, or about 181,000 people.
“We have literally reached a breaking point,” Ms. Haney said. “This is an epidemic, a crisis and we have a moral obligation to address and correct this. We have people in every position in society who have a family member or someone they know in prison because they have criminalized so much. I think that’s why this happened now. There has been no light for compassion, healing or rehabilitation.”
The law’s changes include relaxation of the “three strikes” rule and gives judges the flexibility to sentence repeat offenders to 25 years instead of mandatory life in prison; reducing lengthy mandatory- minimum sentences; slashing prison sentences for thousands of federal inmates; expanding job training programs and providing “life-changing” classes, vocational training and substance abuse treatment as a way to reduce recidivism; increasing “good time credits” earned by inmates.
Mr. Reed said participating in these programs could take up to 54 days off people’s sentences each year.
Some observers remain cautious about the motive behind the bill. Wake Forest law professor Kami Chavis was sanguine about the law and its potential effects.
“The name is appropriate. It’s a great first step. I’m grateful for the bipartisanship but we really need to be aware and skeptical about why this passed and the product,” said Prof. Chavis, a former assistant U.S. Attorney in the District of Columbia. “There are lots of positive aspects, for example what it does for women. But I’m very well aware of about how this came to fruition. Many people have been asking for this for years and Republicans have come onboard now because the faces are different. Now, rural Whites are impacted,” added Prof. Chavis.
“We can’t fool ourselves. It’s helpful to be mindful. You have to go back to the ’80s.”
Prof. Chavis said she is pleased that women will no longer be shackled while pregnant or giving birth. “We’re at a place where that is an improvement,” she said soberly. “We have to remember that it will apply only in federal institutions but I’m sure that some of the legislators looked at states and that informed their vote. States can look to improve.”
She and others said they hope the law’s passage begins the process of truly reforming a criminal justice system that has racial and class inequities deeply embedded throughout. While the U.S. is five percent of the world’s population, it has 20 percent of the world’s imprisoned individuals. Almost 2.2 million were in prisons or jail, and of the more than 180,000 people in federal prison, almost half of them are there for drug offenses. Statistics show that the United States spends almost $81 billion annually on corrections systems— prisons, jails, parole, and probation. Notably, this figure does not include the costs of policing and court systems.
Yvette McDowell, a Bakersfield, California native, and former prosecutor with the city of Pasadena from 1995 to 2008, spoke too, of the heavy burden and the devastating toll mass incarceration has had and continues to have on Blacks. It is with that thought that she welcomes a more reasoned approach to criminal justice.
“This is something that hasn’t happened before,” Ms. McDowell said. “The federal system has been facing some issues. When you look at the recidivism rate, statistics show there are big problems. People are coming back saying how hard it is to reintegrate. I have relatives in that situation. Some of them couldn’t even use a computer. Technology plays a big part in society now.
“The Bureau of Prisons has to get them prepared, they’re in your care. The system has been failing, not getting people back home. Hopefully, the bill will focus on rehabilitation and opportunities so that when people come home they will be able to succeed.”
Far too often, Ms. McDowell said, incarceration tears people away from their families, jettisons them when they’ve served their sentences and leaves them bereft as they navigate life after prison with severely limited opportunities after they’ve served their time. One provision, ensuring that those who are incarcerated are not more than 500 miles away from where they live, will mitigate that issue.
The questions she asks focuses on implementation and enforcement of the provisions.
“Someone will have to take steps to implement them. That falls on the prison system to make this stuff happen. The responsibility will ultimately lead to the federal government and these folks, prison officials, must be held accountable for these things,” she said.
There are those like Michael Collins, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, who are not as enthused by the bill because he doesn’t think it goes far enough. If anything, he said, it represents a tough compromise.
“This is a bittersweet moment,” said Mr. Collins. “The bill represents progress and we should celebrate the release of thousands of people serving disproportionately long sentences, but at the same time the bill leaves far too many people behind. It’s a tough compromise for us and we must keep fighting for much deeper systemic changes.
“The bill is a compromise bill. The main thing missing from this bill is the lack of retroactivity,” Mr. Collins explained. “We are making net progress but a lot of people are left behind. There’s so much work left to be done. As the bill went through the legislative process, a lot of things were added and exclusions, deletions, changes and separate challenges watered the bill down. This legislation is a next step towards desperately needed federal criminal justice reform, but for all its benefits, much more needs to be done.”
In his more than 25 years running Hillsborough County’s (Tampa) consolidated jail, Col. David M. Parrish saw political and public sentiment mired in being tough on crime, replete with long sentences, ‘three strikes’ and the ‘lock ‘em up and throw the key away’ mentality switch to a concentration on rehabilitation, education and reintegration into society.
The First Step Act, he said, is recognition by members of Congress that the old way of doing business doesn’t work.
“I’m so glad to see this,” said Col. Parrish, who spent 35.5 years with the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Department. “The U.S.’s approach for the past 45 years is legislators saying, ‘I can be tougher’ and increasing penalties. Consequently, the number of people who are incarcerated is deeply disproportionate. It’s kind of really strange. Part of it has been driven by money but now they say there has to be a better way.”
He said lawmakers need those coming out of prison to be productive and to be able to re-integrate.
“(In the past), people make a couple of mistakes, and get locked up for life,” Col. Parrish said. “Now those from both sides of the aisle recognize that they have to make the criminal justice system more practical. In this way the federal government is not leading the way. Texas, Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana have actually addressed this problem head on.
“It’s not what you’d expect from Texas which has the second largest state prison system in the country. Southern states—with the most severe penalties and highest incarceration rates and who are extremely conservative— are turning around longstanding ways of dealing with crime. They have made a huge difference in prison populations. They hold people accountable, are not putting everyone who commits a crime in prison, and are focused more on education and infrastructure and not just on punishment. I’m so pleased to see the federal government doing this. Many states need to start looking at this. Not to take away from passage of the law, but Texas needs to be commended for what it did first,” Col. Parrish said.