It’s a shame that Sen. Kamala Harris sought to politicize a celebration of the historic First Step Act at Benedict College in South Carolina last week. Criminal justice reform has benefited millions of Americans — most especially the minorities the Democratic presidential candidate says she advocates for. This reform restores victims, redeems former prisoners and rebuilds communities.
Her objection was that President Trump received the Bipartisan Justice Award from the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center at Benedict College. The award was based on his support and leadership when he signed the First Step Act into law last year. At the time, the legislation was universally seen as a bipartisan success; it passed in the Senate by a vote of 87-12.
As a person who served prison time and worked hard for a second chance, the president’s leadership speaks directly to me.
His efforts to advance criminal justice reform help to ensure that Americans with a criminal record like me — and there are between 70 million and 100 million of us — have the opportunity to share in the American Dream. With the opportunities that the First Step Act and future criminal justice legislation can provide, employers can identify job-ready candidates to fill open positions. This is good for our economy and country and, with the unemployment rate at 3.5%, is more important than ever.
According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the First Step Act has overwhelming helped remedy historic injustice to minorities; African Americans make up more than 91% of those released. It is no secret that minority communities were hurt most by the 1994 Clinton crime bill, which was originally drafted by Sen. Joe Biden. At Benedict College, the president demonstrated his support for a “second step” of criminal justice reform.
He also renewed his commitment to using clemency to fix unfair sentences. Clemency generally comes in two forms: pardons and commutations. Pardons forgive a criminal conviction, while commutations shorten a sentence without cancelling the conviction itself. For example, Alice Johnson (pictured) was granted clemency and released from a life sentence for a first time drug offense.
Most presidents and governors will not use their clemency power until they are ready to leave office. First-term clemency is rare and, candidly, takes political courage. President Trump has used his clemency power and signaled that he intends to continue to correct unfairness where he deems appropriate. At Benedict College, the president asked Alice Johnson, Matthew Charles, and Tanesha Bannister for their thoughts and recommendations about deserving candidates for clemency. All three of these people were granted clemency or release due to the First Step Act, and have served as shining examples of the power of redemption.
Perhaps the greatest legacy of the First Step Act is its effect on state policy. States are following the national criminal justice reform trend led by the White House. The president identified recent reforms in Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Michigan, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Tennessee, which can be expected to lead to safer streets, increased employment and opportunity, and restored dignity and self-worth.
Goals — and results — like these should not be politicized.
I have seen the commitment of the president and White House first-hand, as part of a bipartisan coalition working on criminal justice reform. I had the privilege of being in the Oval Office when the First Step Act was signed, and was humbled when the president asked me to speak about criminal justice reform at the White House.[ I witnessed Jared Kushner’s leadership, and the commitment of Republican and Democrat legislators. As I work with governors and state leaders across the country, I see the excitement for criminal justice reform regardless of party.
Criminal justice reform is a nonpartisan idea whose time has come. President Trump summed it up best at Benedict College when he said: “I knew criminal justice reform was not about politics. I’m … not sure that what I did was a popular thing or an unpopular thing, but I know it was the right thing to do.”