On the night of Dec. 18, 2018, a man sat teary-eyed in the backroom of Carmine's Italian restaurant on 7th Street in Washington, D.C. Five minutes from the U.S. Capitol, I listened to him — my friend and colleague Louis Reed, a national organizer for the criminal justice reform group #cut50 — describe what it meant to have served nearly 14 years in federal prison and then play a major role in changing that broken system.
The First Step Act had just been passed by the U.S. Senate, its biggest legislative hurdle. For that entire year (down to the last 24 hours before Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called for a floor vote), an unlikely bipartisan coalition of directly impacted people had sacrificed health and time with our families to tell the story of those abused by our broken criminal legal system.
Today, it is rare to witness bipartisanship, especially around an issue that so often has been used as a political weapon. But at that moment, a coalition of Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives put political affiliation aside to create a new standard.
The sweeping measure has succeeded over the past year in reducing the number of people serving unjust sentences in our federal prison system. It has been estimated that the measure would impact more than 12,000 cases a year.
The legislation made the Obama-era Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive, bringing relief to those sentenced under the draconian 100-to-1 crack vs. powder cocaine law; it delivered incentives for people to invest in their own release with earned time credits; it stopped the shackling of pregnant women.
From my vantage point, and that of many others who fought for the federal act, the true success of this legislation a year out is the example it has set for bipartisan cooperation in criminal justice reform on the state level — where nearly all incarceration cases begin and the majority remain. The legislation has given Democrats and Republicans political cover and the ability to fight for a system that champions treatment over punishment and rehabilitation over retribution.
In 2019, state legislators and organizers followed the bipartisan blueprint that led to the success of the First Step Act. A bipartisan effort in Albany, New York, passed bail reform, which the Vera Institute of Justice calculates will deliver a 40% dip in pretrial incarceration. Pennsylvania is tackling its probation system by pushing legislation that creates incentives for people to lower time.
As we move into 2020, much more needs to be done. This bipartisan approach has the power to change hearts and minds, reforming deeper issues in our criminal legal system. We need:
►Prosecutorial reform at both the state and federal levels.
►An end to the criminalization of substance use disorders, mental injury or illness by our criminal legal system.
►A state and federal mandate to update law enforcement training.
►The recognition of solitary confinement as a form of torture and the abolition of the practice.
►The abolition of the death penalty across all 50 states.
Due to the success of the First Step Act, confronting these issues with a bipartisanship approach is no longer unlikely. It's the formula. It is exactly what will continue to deliver real justice if we decide justice is what we seek.
I look back at that moment in Carmine’s restaurant often because I cannot afford to forget the tears and indescribable feeling that love and unity delivered to us that night and the opportunity we have to replicate that moment.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Year out, First Step is powerful example for states of bipartisan reform