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Story highlights

Anquan Boldin, Malcolm Jenkins, Glover Quin, and Johnson Bademosi: The war on drugs is a war most of the country, unlike Attorney General Jeff Sessions, would like to end

Congress can do more to help currently and formerly incarcerated people rebuild their lives, they write

Editor’s Note: Anquan Boldin, Malcolm Jenkins, Glover Quin and Johnson Bademosi are players in the National Football League. They have been working together since September 2016 to advocate for criminal justice reform in Washington, D.C. and in the states. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

(CNN) —  

Evans Ray nearly spent his life in prison for his role in a drug deal he wanted no part of.

Ray, a barber with a wife and four children, received a life sentence from a judge who initially tried to sentence him to 27 years for arranging a drug sale in 2007 but was ultimately forced to give him the maximum sentence: life behind bars.

It was federal prosecutors who forced Ray, who ultimately had his sentence commuted in 2016, to face a life sentence. It is these same federal prosecutors who, under orders from their boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, must now pursue the toughest possible charges and sentences against crime suspects.

Mr. Sessions recently announced the seismic shift in criminal justice policy, and now puts himself, the Justice Department and the Trump administration in direct opposition to what so many Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, and red states and blue states, have been clamoring for, and acting on: criminal justice reform that preserves families, saves money and protects communities.

We met Ray during a recent visit to Washington, D.C. We also met Norman Brown, Kenneth Harvey and Derrick Timmons, all gentlemen with similarly profound and heartbreaking stories of how the so-called war on drugs has failed all of us. It is a war Mr. Sessions and the current administration wish to restart. It is a war most of the rest of the country would like to end. So why does Mr. Sessions want to take us backward?

Few Americans are proud of the fact that our prison population has skyrocketed over the last two decades, even as crime rates have been on the decline. The daily prison population in this country is more than twice as large as the number of people who attend every NFL football game on any given Sunday in the fall. That is an embarrassment.

Research shows that men who have spent time behind bars earn roughly 40% less in a year than their colleagues who have not.

Red and blue states have already implemented aggressive criminal justice reforms and seen the benefits of those policies, including faster declines in their crime rate. Between 2010 and 2015, according to research from the Pew Charitable Trusts using FBI crime data, the 10 states that reduced their prison population the most saw their overall crime rates drop by an average of 14.6%, while the 10 states with the fastest-growing prison populations saw a much less significant 8.4% reduction in crime.

Congress can do more to help currently and formerly incarcerated people rebuild their lives by removing obstacles to employment for those with records. Prospective government workers and contractors should not be forced to acknowledge past criminal convictions before they get a chance to demonstrate their qualifications for the job.

We also need to invest more resources in rehabilitation and job training for people who are currently behind bars. Research confirms that comprehensive, coordinated services can help formerly incarcerated individuals find stable employment and housing, reducing the chances that they will return to crime and prison. We should make it easier for people who paid the price for their crime to start a new life once their sentence ends, if for no other reason than it will make all of society safer.

Over the past six months, we have twice traveled to Washington to meet with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill about criminal justice reform. It is an issue that is very personal to us. Our friends and communities have felt the sting of harsh prison sentences, and we’ve seen first hand the devastating effects of failed criminal justice reform policies.

In October, 2015 Anquan Boldin’s cousin was killed on the side of the road by a plainclothes police officer as he was waiting for a tow truck after his car broke down. The trial is scheduled to begin this fall. When he was 6, Johnson Bademosi’s father was incarcerated for a nonviolent drug charge, then deported after serving his sentence, leaving a young man to grow up without his dad. These stories are heartbreaking, but all too common to members of some communities in the United States.

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We made these visits and we are speaking out now because we believe our justice system is broken. We believe America is locking the wrong people up for the wrong reasons for too long. We believe treatment and rehabilitation are often better alternatives to prison. And we believe that for those who do deserve prison time, there should also be second chances.

We were so gratified to see that most of the elected officials we met in Washington on the right and on the left believe this, too. In fact, it seems criminal justice reform may be the only issue where members of both parties agree.

We are in this for the long haul. We know these problems won’t be solved in a few weeks or months, but we are committed to using our voices to do whatever we can to truly make our neighborhoods safer. We hope members of Congress will join us and that the Trump administration, Mr. Sessions in particular, will think twice about reviving a war on drugs that no one can win.