For the 49th year, the Congressional Black Caucus convened with allies from across the nation for their Annual Legislative Conference (ALC) in Washington D.C. Historically, the conference has served as a forum for dissecting broken systems and looking forward toward solutions. But this year was different.
In rooms filled with advocates spanning generations, cell phones were ablaze capturing photos and videos of a unique moment in history: one in which directly impacted leaders gathered to discuss progress.
Nine months after the First Step Act was signed into law, #cut50 partnered with three leading lawmakers to present panels on next steps. Almost 7,000 people have come home from federal prison this year. And one single provision in the bill — retroactivity of crack cocaine sentences — has thus far reclaimed 155,000 years of human life.
In the wake of this historic progress, discussions on criminal justice reform finally expanded beyond freedom as a concept and instead explored freedom as a reality — posing the question, what does freedom look like for a person formerly incarcerated
20 panelists and moderators attempted to answer this question, and to pose some of their own. Among those were Topeka K. Sam and Louis L. Reed, Dignity Director and National Organizer at #cut50, and Empathy Network Partner Mary Stewart-Holmes — all of which are formerly incarcerated themselves. These invaluable perspectives were brought together by #cut50’s own Abree Dominguez in partnership with Empathy Network Partner Britton Smith.
Representative Bobby Scott’s panel focused on the roles of policy, people, and education in criminal justice reform. It brought together six experts from across the space who pulled from personal experiences to highlight the power of a people focused approach to systemic change. Panelist Paul Butler credited his time as a federal prosecutor for shaping the way he thinks about criminal justice reform.
“I didn’t change the system, the system changed me.”
Butler’s sentiment was echoed by Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, who spoke on Representative Hakeem Jeffries’ panel, Mass Incarceration in America: Where Do We Go From Here?: “It’s about the prosecutors and how we protect ourselves.” Dyson, a fellow Georgetown professor and regular NYT contributor, challenged the audience to evaluate their own role in criminal justice reform, and addressed them as neighbors to people currently and formerly incarcerated.
“These are not throw away brothers and sisters, they are members of our community.”
Both panels spoke to the needs of returning community members, and prison’s role in preparing them for reentry to society. Butler called for “meaningful access to healthcare, job training, and resources for people in prison.” Emphasis was put on preparatory measures that can be taken from within the system, not only on what happens once a person exits it. Panelists agreed that a system which is purely punitive will not benefit the individual or society. Instead, it should be one that focuses on personal development, vocational training, and skill building that will help prepare people incarcerated for becoming positive societal participants.
A long list of challenges await people after life in prison: finding a job, securing housing, navigating transportation — to name only a few. Basic aspects of living become a major challenge with a criminal record, and significant support is required in order for a person formerly incarcerated to even attempt overcoming those hurdles. As #cut50 Co-Founder Van Jones put it during Representative Danny Davis’s panel on reentry,
“When people come home they need a springboard to success, not a trapdoor to failure.”
From probation officers to activists, there was a strong consensus among the criminal justice focused at the conference: it’s time to start broadening our definition of decarceration to include what happens after prison — and those solutions must come into play during incarceration.
While there is much work to be done before next year’s Annual Legislative Conference, members and allies of the Congressional Black Caucus this year gave acknowledgement to the distance between this year and last year — quantified by the growth of our communities thanks to the ~7,000 people who have returned to them from federal prison.
“#cut50 is important because they focus on reducing crime and bringing people home,” said Paul Butler.
Attendees of Rep. Jeffries’ panel witnessed this firsthand. Speaking on his panel was Matthew Charles, one of the first people released from federal prison under the First Step Act only eight months ago. In that time, Charles has traveled the country sharing his story with unlikely allies from all over the sociopolitical spectrum who now support meaningful criminal justice reform. Charles’ attendance and participation at ALC is one major factor that distinguishes it from years past; this time, leaders and activists did not gather to only advocate for change, but to also experience it.
#cut50 is committed to bringing people who survived the justice system to the table to share their stories and shape the future of policy. This year at CBC’s ALC the presence of our most impacted neighbors was felt, seen, and heard, and this was an important step in their journey toward representation in Washington D.C. and beyond.