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Three Years Since the First Step Act

Americans love getting their fill of Thanksgiving turkey, and many are already celebrating or preparing for a special holiday season. But, for the two of us, one of the most meaningful dates on this year’s calendar is December 8th, when we will celebrate the First Step Act, which gave us a chance to earn our freedom.

Both of us served time in federal prison. Robert was arrested and received a sentence of 25 years but thanks to the First Step Act only served 17. Clover was sentenced to 10 years, of which she served 8.

Our prison terms separated us from our families and our communities. Yet, both of us hoped to use that time to better ourselves. We both discovered that the federal prison system was not designed to rehabilitate people, or make them more productive when they return home. It’s worse at reducing crime than most alternatives. Instead, it is simply designed to warehouse human beings for decades with little to no hope of rehabilitation.

Robert managed to find a way through, and earned an associate’s degree and a dual bachelor’s of science degree with magna cum laude honors while also teaching courses, tutoring, and serving as a team leader for an at-risk youth outreach program. But very few incarcerated people have access to all these kinds of opportunities.

He found that there were far too few programs and resources being offered, and almost no grants and financial aid were available to people on the inside. Too many people walk out of prisons unchanged, discouraged, broken and traumatized without any resources or skills.

All that started to change in 2018, with the passage of the First Step Act.

The most consequential criminal justice reform of the last few decades, this bipartisan legislation made sentences fairer and more equitable. Just as importantly, it tilted the federal prison system toward rehabilitative treatment. Under the new law, people could earn credits toward early release for good behavior and self betterment. New access was granted to programs that would help them successfully reenter society.

Eventually, both of us were released early under the First Step Act. Thanks to this legislation, more than 20,000 people are now home with their families, more than 7,000 people have earned time off their incarceration, more than 17,000 years of human freedom were restored, and the federal prison population is at its lowest level in decades.

Today, Clover is the Founder and Executive Director of A Beautiful HEART Ministries, and has been accepted in the Justice Initiative Program at Columbia University. Robert is on the Federal Prison Priorities Committee of Dream Corps JUSTICE and the Board of Directors for the Prison Scholar Fund. He’s also currently enrolled in an MBA program. We both constantly share our story to make sure that the First Step Act is not the last step.

This December 8, we will be both celebrating and calling for more change at a bipartisan event on Capitol Hill commemorating the First Step Act and looking to move forward.

The 1994 crime bill punished crack cocaine offenses 100 times worse than those for powder cocaine, even though they are chemically identical. The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act reduced the disparity, and the First Step Act made it retroactive, offering a chance to people like Robert. Recently, a bipartisan majority in the House passed the EQUAL Act, which would eliminate the disparity altogether. The Senate should take up and pass this legislation immediately.

Or, look at another bipartisan proposal from Senator Durbin and Senator Grassley. It includes three bills — the First Step Implementation Act, the Safer Detention Act, and the Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act — all of which have bipartisan support and would shift the federal system further toward rehabilitation and alternatives to incarceration.

Finally, thousands of people were given compassionate release during the COVID-19 epidemic. While home with their families, these individuals face draconian limits on their personal freedom, even as they work and enroll in classes. Despite a miniscule offense rate, the Biden administration plans to send most back to prison as the pandemic eases. There is no sense in ripping them away from their families now, and the President has the clemency power to keep them home if he chooses.

Even in these divided times, we believe that Republicans and Democrats can come together on more than fixing roads and bridges. The First Step Act was a bipartisan bill, with unlikely allies both inside and outside of Congress supporting it. If Congress wants to keep the bipartisan momentum going while making America more free and just, it should return to the work of criminal justice reform. Take it from two people who owe their freedom to the willingness of good people to find common ground.

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