Alice Marie Johnson, and countless Americans like her who were subject to our broken system, started the year with great momentum for further criminal justice reforms. But unless Congress acts fast, they will end the year going backward. The same Congress that courageously passed the First Step Act in 2018, and one year later passed the Fair Chance Act, will soon adjourn without more significant achievement with criminal justice reforms. They have had numerous chances and failed to take them.
Tens of thousands of people who deserve a shot at a better life, like the five individuals who just received clemency from Donald Trump, will not be able to follow Johnson. It is a shame. The president granted the men and women a second chance at life. Congress must deliver so returning citizens who want to turn their lives around have a path to a productive life by passing the relief bill that includes criminal justice measures.
However, these sensible reforms are in limbo thanks to politics. Because of the way Congress works, the fate of these changes, and of the people seeking second chances, is tied to a deal the administration cannot seem to get the House and Senate to close. While both sides are fighting about the size of the bill and how best to use it to own their advantages, no one considers the human casualties of those up in the criminal justice system who deserve a second chance but must face obstacles at every turn.
Three provisions on the table would send resources to state and local law enforcement to bolster the diversion programs for drug and mental health treatment, allow people who have made mistakes but paid their dues and turned their lives around to be eligible for small business loans related to the coronavirus, and allow elderly nonviolent prisoners to move to home detention to curb the spread of the disease and save taxpayer dollars.
These changes would decrease the federal inmate population, which the administration reports is the lowest since 1995. Moreover, they will reduce recidivism rates and ensure people who have turned away from crime can continue on that path. Prisoners returning to their communities, like those who have been granted clemency, still face tremendous struggles as their criminal records create barriers to jobs, housing, education, and more.
A perfect case is Sekwan Merritt, who had served years for his nonviolent drug crime much like Johnson. He was released on parole and started an electrical contractor business. When the pandemic hit he, like millions of Americans all across the country, needed aid to stand his business afloat. However, the Paycheck Protection Program, which had been established to provide this relief, denied him a loan since he is a convicted felon.
A third of the small business owners all across the country have a criminal record. Many started their own firms since they were not hired elsewhere. What becomes of these individuals if they cannot continue working? Many return to crime and go back to prison, taxpayers throw more money to the system, and our communities are less safe. There are around 50,000 legal restrictions with employment and housing which prevent former prisoners from reintegrating into society. Congress must not leave one more barrier in this crisis. It should instead include the bipartisan Paycheck Protection Program Second Chance Act for the next coronavirus relief package.
Washington is often marked by missed opportunities. Regardless of how one feels about the president, no one can deny his ability to shake up the establishment and create an environment where anything could happen, including groundbreaking legislation like the First Step Act. For the sake of the Americans languishing in prison, who have earned and deserve a better tomorrow, Congress cannot allow such opportunities to fade.
Holly Harris serves as the executive director of the Justice Action Network.