This past week, the House Judiciary Committee convened for a hearing on the implementation of the First Step Act (FSA), historic criminal justice legislation responsible for bringing home ~7,000 community members from prison so far this year.
Since the passage of the First Step Act almost one year ago, thousands of people have benefited from the law, including the families and communities of those returned to them under this legislation.
But it is rare that lawmakers come face-to-face with those directly impacted by their policies.
#cut50’s team — notably National Organizer Louis L. Reed, a directly impacted survivor of the federal prison system himself, along with Communications Associate Abree Dominguez and Policy Manager Matthew Bulger — worked hard to change that. With just a few days notice, people recently released from prison under the First Step Act (and the family who accompanied them) embarked on flights (some for the first time in their lives) to meet with those who played a crucial role in granting their freedom in Washington D.C.
Subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Karen Bass opened up the hearing by acknowledging this:
Ranking Member and First Step Act Sponsor Rep. Doug Collins (GA-09) remarked, “the First Step Act wasn’t just about reducing the size of the federal prison population. Rather, it was about improving the outcomes of those who will one day be rejoining us in society.”
Some of those who already have rejoined their communities sat before the Committee, including Lonnie Jones, Trevor Jeffrey, Tanesha Banister (whose own story from behind bars helped sway lawmakers to support FSA, leading to her eventual release), Eddie Smalls, Izo Starsbound, and Clover Perez, who has already founded a nonprofit for incarcerated women and girls in the short time since she’s been released. Perez offered the following on the day of the hearing:
“Today is a day of restoration and healing for me and my family. It’s a time to make my voice heard and to remove the veil of invisibility that surrounds so many of us who are affected by the criminal justice system. For those who are left to feel dehumanized, I say rise and stand up straight. You were not made to be pressed down but to blossom into greatness. Today is a day of rebirth not only for me but for the many women and men who have lost their value and place in society. Again I say rise.”
Mid hearing, Committee Chair Bass asked for Perez and all other present FSA early-release recipients to rise. In this moment, Perez and the formerly incarcerated men and women standing alongside her were both seen and heard.
“It was very enlightening, it was a change from sitting down and watching it on C-SPAN,” said Trevor Jeffrey, who returned home from prison on March 11th under the First Step Act. “It’s just good to know that people are actually taking this stuff into real consideration.”
Recent events brought attacks on the First Step Act from right-wing media outlets following the tragic murder of Troy Pine. The man suspected for his murder was released earlier this year under the retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act. While some have used this news to falsely make claims that people incarcerated are not deserving of freedom or that justice reforms are dangerous, the victim’s family offered a different lesson following their horrific loss.
At the hearing, Representative Hakeem Jeffries read aloud a portion of a statement provided by Troy Pine’s nephew, Jay Chattelle, who recognized that the First Step Act is a piece of legislation with good intentions, and stressed the need for reform in a criminal justice system that incarcerates far too many people:
“My uncle was truly a great man, and his loss has devastated my family. No family should have to go through this. And there should be accountability, especially at the lower levels where big mistakes were clearly made. But to blame President Trump or the First Step Act is 100 percent wrong. This bill was passed with good intentions. Way too many people are in jail for way too long. I know another man who got out a few years early because of the First Step Act. He moved to Florida to be with his family, and he has left his old ways behind. There are many similar examples. Nobody should use my family’s name or pain for a political agenda. At the funeral, my brother spoke of the need for love and forgiveness — and I wish the world had heard it. My brother and I were my uncle’s closest relatives, so we know what he would have wanted. Anyone who speaks my uncle’s name, please speak it in a way that will draw people together — and bring help to people in these communities, including human beings who have been locked up for too long. Speak it in a way that brings healing to people who need it. My family is about God’s love and grace. We are working to make healing be my uncle’s legacy. I hope you will join us in this effort. God bless you all.”
Chattelle’s statement serves as a somber reminder that our existing justice system offers little in the way of true healing or restoration for survivors of crime, or families of those who have tragically lost their loved ones.
The First Step Act focuses on rehabilitation to educate, train, and generally prepare people incarcerated for life on the outside. FSA-strengthened programs like the “ready to work” initiative, a post release employment project, helps ensure people get the training and skills they need to enter the workforce job-ready following incarceration.
Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Kathleen Hawk Sawyer acknowledged a study finding that people formerly incarcerated are 24% less likely to return to crime if they enter the workforce with job applicable skills, and are 15% more likely to join the workforce with proper vocational training.
Thanks to $75 million in approved funding to fully implement the First Step Act, programs like these can continue to grow and thrive inside our nation’s federal prisons. Well-designed programming is essential to ensuring incarceration leaves people better prepared for living in society, instead of stripping them of the very skills and experiences necessary for successful reentry while in prison.
One of those who paid witness to Chattelle’s words at the hearing was Izo Starsbound, who thanks to the First Step Act, recently reunited with a son whose life he didn’t get a chance to be a part of until after being released from prison. Starsbound served 27 years in prison, his son is now 26 years old. “I never had the opportunity to be in his life…so I’ve been blessed to be returned.”
The First Step Act brought historical change to America’s criminal justice system, but it is only a first step. You can help advocate for further changes to both federal and state criminal justice systems by getting involved with #cut50.