Editor’s Note: Van Jones is the host of the “The Van Jones Show” and a CNN political commentator. He is the co-founder of #cut50, a national, bipartisan criminal justice initiative of the Dream Corps and the CEO of the REFORM Alliance. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
It is hard not to cry when you watch the video. After 23 years behind bars, his sister wrote in a Facebook post, a formerly incarcerated man walks through the door of his family’s house. His mother’s sobs make her joy plain – and testify to the depth of the pain suffered by families separated from their loved ones by an unjust criminal justice system.
This video was shared thousands of times, in part because we all need a bit of good news these days. Yet there is some even better news to go with it: The story behind this video was being repeated in thousands of different versions across the country.
Last week, new provisions of the First Step Act went into effect. The legislation was passed by Congress last year with overwhelming bipartisan support and laid out an ambitious goal of turning the federal prison system toward rehabilitation, not just punishment, while also making the justice system fairer and more humane. Since it was signed into law in December, more than 1,200 people have already returned home to their families thanks to retroactive sentencing reforms.
On Friday, an additional 2,200 people joined them – all walking out of prison on the same day.
Here’s why: Decades ago, Congress decided that incarcerated individuals could earn up to 54 days off their sentence each year for good conduct. But the Department of Justice and federal Bureau of Prisons interpreted the law differently and only gave people 47 days, instead. Losing one week a year may not seem like much, but it means everything to the families who can only talk to their loved ones through glass. So the families fighting for criminal justice reform on behalf of their incarcerated loved ones made correcting that misinterpretation one of their top priorities, and they won.
The First Step Act fixed this mistake and made it retroactive. Thousands of people whose good conduct while incarcerated earned them months off their time in prison are now coming home to their families.
Many will need help reentering society.
An organization I cofounded, #cut50, partnered with Root & Rebound and The Margaret and Daniel Loeb Foundation to produce the “First Step to Second Chances Guide,” a first-of-its-kind handbook with critical information for formerly incarcerated individuals to navigate a smooth transition home, including help to find housing, employment, licenses, and more. In the coming weeks, thousands of copies of the guide will make their way to individuals released from federal prison and the hundreds of organizations and volunteers who will be critical to helping them establish their new lives.
Last week also marked a pivot point in the long quest to refocus America’s criminal justice system on rehabilitation, not just retribution. Not only were thousands of incarcerated people reunited with their families, but the Department of Justice took a major step toward ending unjust and punitive aspects of the system.
The Department of Justice on Friday announced the release of a first draft of its Risk & Needs Assessment system. In the past, the Bureau of Prisons would evaluate only a prisoner’s risk level and place them in facilities with a different security level. Under the First Step Act, it will now also evaluate what a prisoner needs in order to be rehabilitated – from anger management classes to basic literacy training – and match them to what they need. Incarcerated individuals can then reduce the amount of time they spend in prison by pursuing that programming.
Even better, this assessment factors in how individuals have transformed their lives while incarcerated. The old system looked at data like education level or number of arrests before conviction, much of which is skewed by racial disparities in quality education or over-policing of black and brown communities.
In other words, Friday marked a pivot from a system that too often locked people up and threw away the key to a system that might better address the underlying causes that led to incarceration – from a system that amplifies the worst racial injustices in our society to one that aims to give each individual a chance to grow and change.
The hard work of transforming the culture of our broken criminal justice system is underway. Democrats and Republicans can both celebrate this bipartisan breakthrough.
The First Step Act was just that – a first step. There is a long road ahead. But the effects of a thoughtful, compassionate approach to criminal justice reform are already being felt.
Just ask a family whose loved one came home last week.