Editor’s Note: Van Jones is a CNN host and political commentator and the founder of Dream Corps. Janos Marton, an organizer and civil rights attorney, is the national director of Dream Corps JUSTICE. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the authors. View more opinion at CNN.
America should be the land of second chances. That is why we were excited to hear that President Joe Biden made his first use of clemency powers Tuesday during Second Chance Month, a time dedicated to helping support those who were formerly incarcerated.
Biden, who pardoned three people and commuted the sentences of 75 others, is also opening up pathways to new opportunities for people in our broken criminal justice system. It is not enough to release people from prison – we need to set them up for success as well. That is why the administration announced it would provide better access to education, job training, small business capital, health care, and much more.
What does this all mean?
1. It is a mark of continued bipartisan momentum on this issue. It is an indication that Biden takes reform seriously, just as former President Donald Trump did when he signed the historic bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation, The First Step Act. Former President Barack Obama also signed criminal justice legislation and granted a record number of commutations. These three presidents do not agree on much, but they have all advanced the cause on second chances. Now, Biden has raised the bar, issuing three pardons and 75 commutations. While he has granted clemency to only a tiny portion of the pending petitions, it is more than his last five predecessors had issued at this point in their presidencies.
2. He also announced significant reforms. Clemencies grab headlines, but the details announced Tuesday will change a significant number of lives. The administration committed to a first-of-its-kind partnership between the departments of Labor and Justice to provide job training and help people land on their feet when they leave prison. It also announced more than 20 different measures to make it easier for people to return to their communities and lead productive lives, including expanding access to Pell Grants, hiring people who were incarcerated on infrastructure projects, and making it easier to access housing, veterans benefits and Medicare.
3. Reforms like these make our neighborhoods safer. Leaders in both parties agree that our criminal justice system is broken. We spend too much money locking up too many people – and we do too little to tackle the true sources of crime, like lack of opportunity. Evidence suggests that if we want safe neighborhoods, we need a criminal justice system that actually rehabilitates people and makes it less likely for them to be incarcerated again. We need to make it easier for people who have owned their mistakes and served their time to go home and begin contributing to their communities. Tuesday’s commutations and reforms are a step in that direction.
4. Some of these people should already be home with their families. The First Step Act gave people who are incarcerated a chance to earn time off their sentence through good behavior or steps to better themselves. But the legislation was not retroactive, meaning many worthy people – including about a third of those whose sentences were commuted today – were not eligible. By making future reforms retroactive, we can reward personal growth without putting so many people through the lengthy and confusing clemency process.
5. We need to keep pushing. The lives of 78 people changed today. The lives of countless more will be improved by the programs to create new opportunities for those who have served time. But there are still millions of people stuck in an often unfair and cruel system that spends too much while accomplishing too little. While no presidential administration is a monolith, today’s clemencies show there is support for reform within team Biden. It is up to the rest of us to keep agitating and advocating for more reforms.
What is next? The Senate needs to pass the EQUAL Act, which will eliminate disparities between crack cocaine sentences and those related to powdered cocaine. The measure has already passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support and a number of Republican Senators have agreed to support the legislation. The Biden administration also has more work to do, for instance, making sure the funding announced today actually leads to strong programming across the country.
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But today we can celebrate that the growing bipartisan movement to fix our criminal justice system continues to build momentum – and that these people have got a real shot at a second chance.