Criminal Justice Reform
My wife and I recently had the privilege to attend a luncheon with Alice Marie Johnson. Ms. Johnson was the speaker on January 20 at Calvin University as part of the January Series. About 15 of us attended the luncheon after the event and had the opportunity to both get to know her a little better and also tell her a little about ourselves and how we were working on making changes to the criminal justice system. The Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday was fitting for both Ms. Johnson’s talk and a discussion of CJ reforms as it disproportionately affects our minority communities.
Many of you know her story. Ms. Johnson was sentenced in 1996 to life plus 25 years for her role in a nonviolent federal drug case. This was her first and only conviction. While she admits she was guilty and made bad choices, she didn’t deserve a sentence of this magnitude. She turned down a plea offer that would have had her out of prison in less than eight years.
Her appeals had been exhausted, but changes in the federal sentencing guidelines passed in 2010 and the potential to be applied retroactively gave her hope that she may one day get out. She was passed over on numerous occasions, and then in 2018, Kim Kardashian West heard her story and got involved in her appeal. On June 6, 2018 President Donald Trump granted her clemency. Alice was free to go home to her family.
Alice’s release is seen as the catalyst for the bipartisan passage of the First Step Act last year.
Alice has written a book – “After Life: My Journey from Incarceration to Freedom” – and tours the country telling her story and advocating for criminal justice reforms. I picked up her book the week prior to the talk and couldn’t put it down. Alice actually started doing presentations via Skype while in prison. Venues included Hunter College, Yale University, New York University, Google, YouTube and others.
While Ms. Johnson’s sentence was extraordinarily harsh for a first time nonviolent offender, there are many others who are sitting in prison, serving long sentences who could be out being productive members of our communities.
The Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration report and recommendations came out last week. It is obvious that a good deal of time, thought and energy were put into this 47-page report. It included interviews and contributions from a wide array of stakeholders. There are some excellent recommendations for improvements in our system. Changes that could make better use of tax dollars and provide a more equitable system of justice in all counties in Michigan. My hope is that we don’t just put this report on a shelf to gather dust, but instead start working on making these reforms happen. We’ve done a good deal in the last few years to go from being tough on crime to being smart on crime. Let’s keep moving.