LAST MAY, REALITY TV mega-celebrity Kim Kardashian arrived at the White House and successfully lobbied President Donald Trump to grant clemency to Alice Marie Johnson, a grandmother then serving life in federal prison for a nonviolent drug crime.
It would be easy to read that sentence as an encapsulation of the deeply absurd times we're living through, but 2018 was full of similarly unexpected and encouraging turns in the fight to reform the criminal justice system. Along with Kardashian getting lifers out of prison, Republicans and Democrats hugged on the Senate floor to celebrate the passage of a bill rolling backsome mandatory minimum sentences, and formerObama green jobs czar Van Jones stood in the White House with conservative and evangelical Christian leaders to applaud the signing of that bill. Johnson, who served 21 years in federal prison before Kardashian got her released, was an honored guest at Trump's State of the Union speech this January and published a book about her experiences.
The U.S. criminal justice system railroads innocent people and petty offenders every day. People die in jails and prisons due to neglect or plain malice by public officials. Even if the U.S. released every single nonviolent drug offender currently behind bars, it would still have the highest prison population in the world by a wide margin. These are problems that won't be completely resolved any time soon. Yet ever so slowly, thanks to a combination of criminal justice advocates, budget-conscious legislators, and voter demand--not to mention the devastating testimony of people like Johnson--some of the system's most glaring problems are being addressed. Solutions may still be a long way off, but real progress is being made.
Cross-partisan efforts are happening around the country--at the federal, state, and local levels--to change the way people interact with every facet of the criminal justice system, from initial police encounters to sentencing to prisoner re-entry back into society. Some of those efforts will fail. Others will be misguided or ineffectual. But the fact that policy makers are considering alternatives to the lock-'em-up mentality that dominated much of the latter half of the 20th century, and are working with their usual political opponents to make it happen, is a cause for optimism.
CONGRESS TOOK A BABY STEP
IN DECEMBER, FEDERAL lawmakers passed the first major criminal justice bill in nearly a decade: the FIRST STEP Act. Although a small cadre of Republicans tried to scuttle the bill, it passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate. Some of the GOP senators who shepherded it through Congress, such as Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), had previously been among the staunchest supporters of harsh drug laws and mandatory minimum sentences.
The legislation was...