Editor’s Note: CNN host Van Jones and Jessica Jackson are co-founders of #cut50, a bipartisan criminal justice initiative of the Dream Corps. The opinions expressed in this commentary are the authors’ own. View more opinion at CNN. To learn more about a new approach to justice inside and outside of our prisons, tune into “The Redemption Project with Van Jones,” Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CNN.
You don’t have to be a hardcore sports fan to understand that no team should be celebrating victory after only the first quarter of a game. Reasonable people might ask, then, at this early stage, why did the Trump administration host a First Step Act celebration just three months after passing the landmark criminal justice bill?
What was there to celebrate and what is left to be done? Plenty in both cases.
By way of review, the First Step Act was the big bipartisan success story of 2018. Liberals like Rep. Hakeem Jeffries and Sen. Dick Durbin joined with conservatives like Rep. Doug Collins and Sen. Chuck Grassley. We both got personally involved as advocates through cut50.org, a bipartisan reform group that we co-founded during the Obama administration.
We formed an unlikely bipartisan coalition – made up of formerly incarcerated people, celebrities, corporate executives, pastors and grassroots leaders – and found ourselves working alongside Jared Kushner, whose father had been to prison. Together, we helped pass one of the most significant rewrites of federal prison and sentencing reform laws in decades.
And in a move that surprised many, President Donald Trump endorsed the legislation and signed it into law. In doing so, we witnessed a real evolution of the President’s views on crime and punishment. The same President whose inaugural address included a line about stopping “American carnage” came to publicly decry harsh prison sentences.
While passing the First Step Act represented real progress, the true measure of any law should be its impact on people’s lives. As the first quarter of the First Step Act comes to a close, there are at least five things we should be celebrating:
- Three-thousand people incarcerated in federal prison now have an opportunity to seek relief from outdated, unfair and, frankly, racist prison sentences. The First Step Act retroactively applies the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which fixed a longstanding injustice by reducing the 100:1 crack-to-powder cocaine ratio (meaning that one gram of crack cocaine was weighed as equivalent to 100 grams of powder cocaine) to 18:1. Now, thousands of cases are working their way through the courts with the help of hardworking federal defenders, potentially reducing thousands of prison sentences.
- Three sentencing reforms included in the First Step Act went into effect the day President Trump signed the bill into law, rolling back some of the harshest penalties in federal prison sentencing. They will impact about 12,000 cases per year, involving more than 25,000 people. These reforms mean that defendants will no longer face mandatory life sentences for third strike drug offenses and federal prosecutors are no longer able to aggressively stack guns and drug charges consecutively.
- Thousands of people who are 60 years of age or older or suffering from “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances now have the opportunity to seek relief by petitioning the Bureau of Prisons or a judge for their release. These compassionate and elderly release provisions mean that despite their past crimes, people in prison deserve to live their last days with grace and dignity.
- Conservative governors and state legislatures are already going bolder on criminal justice reforms. While a few red state governors led the charge on reform efforts dating back to 2009, President Trump’s endorsement of the First Step Act dramatically opened up political breathing room for bolder and more substantive changes. Already, the Arkansas state legislature voted unanimously to pass Dignity for Incarcerated Women legislation that will improve prison conditions for women. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant recently led an effort to pass reforms that restore second chances to people coming home from prison and expand the state’s drug court system. Other states like Florida, Alabama and Georgia are ushering in a new wave of reforms inspired by the First Step Act’s passage.
- Additionally, many people in prison have a renewed sense of hope. It had been more than a decade since any major reforms had passed to improve the lives of people in federal prisons. As the First Step Act’s provisions come into effect, incarcerated people will see their lives tangibly improve.
But there is still a long way to go before the First Step Act has been fully implemented and fulfilled its promise. This is what needs to happen now:
- The Department of Justice must immediately form an Independent Review Committee and begin creating the risk assessment and needs assessment system proposed in the bill, which would match incarcerated people to the programs and services most supportive of their rehabilitation. The formation of this committee was one of the first deadlines outlined in the legislation and it is relied upon by many other important provisions.
- The Bureau of Prisons must apply the good time credit fix retroactively. This provision increased the amount of time off a prisoner would earn for good conduct and promised to apply that credit retroactively to currently incarcerated people. However, a misinterpretation by the Bureau of Prisons means that this section has not been applied in full.
- Congress must fund the First Step Act at its full authorization levels. Appropriators working on the budget should work with the White House to ensure that the bill is fully funded for Fiscal Year 2020.
We named this legislation the First Step Act for a reason. We know there is much more to be done, as our critics often point out. However, there can be no second, third, or fourth step without a first.
We were in attendance at the Trump administration’s 2019 Prison Reform Summit and First Step Act Celebration to both celebrate the good work that has been done and continue to push for more. We were joined by lawmakers from across the country, faith leaders, business executives, cultural figures and the advocates who helped shape and pass the legislation. We also brought with us a half-dozen people who have recently been released from federal prison because of this legislation and have traveled to Washington to share their stories.
They had much to be thankful for – and the President gave them all an opportunity to speak.
Yvonne Fountain had 10 years remaining on her prison sentence when she heard from her lawyer that his motion for her immediate release had been granted. April Johnson was ordered by a judge to be released from prison to return home and care for her terminally ill daughter and two young grandchildren. Catherine Toney, Troy Powell, and Gregory Allen have all come home within the last 30 days hoping to contribute to society by being good employees and citizens.
They have all experienced significant challenges, too, and talked candidly about them with staffers on Capitol Hill and White House officials.
As more people hear their voices, see their faces and listen to their stories, more hearts will open and more progress will be possible. After all, the stories and voices of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people have already pushed Trump to do much more than most people ever thought he would.
For example, after hearing about her plight, Trump granted clemency to Alice Marie Johnson, a grandmother serving a life without parole sentence for a first-time drug offense. He talked often about the contributions that employers can make to society by hiring men and women returning home from prison.
In May 2018, the Trump administration hosted a prison reform summit where the President first endorsed the First Step Act. Many formerly incarcerated people took part and spoke powerfully, helping to deepen the White House’s commitment to the measure. As the bill stalled in the Senate, Trump publicly and privately pressured Mitch McConnell to bring it to the Senate floor for a vote.
When the President signed the First Step Act into law just days before Christmas, he gave Topeka K. Sam and Shon Hopwood, who had both served time in federal prison, an opportunity to share their stories before cameras in the Oval Office. At his 2019 State of the Union Address, President Trump, in front of millions of viewers and the bicameral assembly, highlighted Alice Johnson alongside another case of unjust incarceration, Matthew Charles. Neither of us will forget the President during the 2019 State of the Union address, saying “Welcome home, Matthew.”
This time last year, practically no one believed that a bipartisan breakthrough of this scale and magnitude was even possible. For those of us who continue to believe and fight for a victory on what was once considered to be a lost cause, celebrating the First Step Act is something we experience with a great deal of pride.