It seemed like any other day until, at 10:30 a.m., a guard came into Douglas’s cell and told him he needed to call his lawyer. A few minutes later, he reached his lawyer, who informed him that, thanks to a new law, he would be a free man in a matter of hours. Douglas started sobbing.
“I don’t know what to say,” Douglas said through tears. “I’ll be glad to see my mom and my kids.”
The new law — the First Step Act — was the most sweeping overhaul of the criminal justice system in a decade, and included a provision making retroactive a 2010 law that reduced the egregious discrepancies between sentences for crack and powder cocaine. These discrepancies imposed such harsh, unbalanced penalties for crack cocaine relative to powder cocaine, that someone caught with an amount of crack the size of a candy bar would get roughly the same sentence as someone caught with a briefcase full of powder.
Almost 90 percent of the people sentenced under this unfair disparity, such as Douglas, were black. None were given the leniency available to many wealthy, white people who break the law — for example, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was sentenced Thursday to four years in prison (out of a maximum 24) for his eight white-collar criminal convictions.
Thanks to the First Step Act, thousands of Americans who were sentenced under unjust guidelines became eligible for immediate freedom. But while the law is momentous, it’s just what its name suggests: one step on a long road toward fixing this broken system. We live in the nation that professes a sacred devotion to liberty and freedom, yet while we are 5 percent of the globe’s population, we lock up 1 out of every 4 people incarcerated on planet earth, and 1 out of every 3 women. Stunningly, there are now more African American men under criminal supervision than there were slaves in 1850.
Unaddressed implicit racial bias in our justice system at all levels — from law enforcement encounters to sentencing — and the unequal application of our laws have created a justice system where inputs and outcomes are often more dependent on race and class than on guilt or innocence. It’s created a justice system that is anything but just and that is often making us less safe.
Douglas’s story is a testament to both the deep unfairness that exists within our broken criminal justice system and the transformative impact legislation can have on people’s lives. Earlier this year, Douglas was my guest at the State of the Union address, and I had the honor of hearing him tell his story in person. While his recounting of the moment he learned about his freedom was incredibly moving, what he told me next was the true revelation.
After that life-changing phone call, Douglas returned to his pod, where he lived with roughly 130 other guys in the same area of the prison. He jumped onto a table and shouted the good news: “I’m getting immediate release!”
His podmates — many of whom had come to view Douglas as a mentor figure — joined him at the table. Dozens of others — grown men behind bars — began crying, hugging and jumping for joy.
They just had one sobering message for Douglas amidst all the celebration: “Don’t forget us.”
“No, I won’t,” Douglas replied.
And neither will I. There are still far too many Americans unjustly stuck behind bars, languishing in warehouses of human potential that are tearing families apart, destroying communities, wasting taxpayer dollars and violating our ideals as a nation.
That’s why I introduced far-reaching legislation last week that would make serious and substantial reforms to sentencing guidelines, prison conditions, law enforcement training and re-entry efforts.
The Next Step Act is the most comprehensive, ambitious criminal justice bill to be introduced in Congress in a generation. It would reduce harsh mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses, while also eliminating the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences, which currently sits at 18:1. It would also prohibit federal employers and contractors from asking job applicants about their criminal history until the final stages of the interview process; improve the ability of those behind bars to stay in touch with loved ones; provide better training for law enforcement officers in implicit racial bias, de-escalation and use-of-force; reinstate voting rights for formerly incarcerated individuals; and end the federal prohibition on marijuana.
You can tell a lot about a country by who it incarcerates. Some countries imprison journalists. Others imprison political opponents. We imprison the poor, the addicted, the mentally ill, the survivors of abuse and sexual assault, and black and brown people. Our broken criminal justice system is a cancer on the soul of our nation that preys upon our most marginalized populations. It’s time we developed a cure.