Pushing Our Elected Officials To Take Action On Criminal Justice Reform | Op-EdBrittany K. Byrd on why the power is in our hands.

Pete Souza // The White House

Apr 29, 2016

As the daughter of a formerly-incarcerated mother, I know first hand that when one person goes to prison the entire family goes to prison.

The impact of mass incarceration is far reaching and has devastated families and entire communities. We cannot incarcerate ourselves to a crime-free society. Many Democrats and Republicans agree it is time to stem the tide of over-sentencing and restore a sense of fairness that should be at the heart of our justice system.

The current momentum fueling criminal justice reform is at an all-time high. Yesterday (April 28) was a big day on Capitol Hill. The ACLU, #cutt50, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights sponsored an event, #JusticeReformNow: Celebrities for Justice and & Voices of Impacted People. Actors and advocates like Hill Harper, Terrence J, Van Jones, Michael Skolnik, Matt McGorry and Melissa Fitzgerald delivered powerful statements at the event calling for justice and urging Congress to move quickly to pass a substantial sentencing reform bill. At the same time, a bipartisan group of senators came to an agreement on a bill that would reform federal sentencing laws.

I devote countless hours to pro bono representation of men and women serving excessive sentences for non-violent drug offenses. One of my clients, Corey Jacobs, is serving his 16th year of a life without parole sentence for a first-time non-violent drug offense that occurred when he was only in his early twenties.

I am a firm believer in humanizing the issue of mass incarceration. We have to look beyond the numbers and see the heartbeats of those affected by this ailing criminal justice system. After yesterday's news of a deal being struck in the senate, I reviewed the sentencing reform bill's revisions through a prism of how will this truly help those currently serving draconian sentences. As I read through the bill, I began to feel disheartened when I realized it would not help Corey Jacobs or many others with cases like his. The bill is certainly a step in the right direction—it just simply does not go far enough.

Fortunately, President Obama has shown dedication to wielding his executive clemency powers the way it was designed to be used. In 2014 the Obama administration set forth an unprecedented initiative to encourage individuals who were sentenced under outdated laws and policies to petition for clemency.

As of today, President Obama has granted clemency to more individuals than the last six presidents combined.

The only hope for many like Corey is clemency from President Obama.

Despite facing the grim reality of dying in prison as a first-time non-violent drug offender, Corey has devoted himself to extensive rehabilitative programming since the beginning of his incarceration. He is well-prepared for release to meaningfully contribute to society. Corey presents a compelling and appropriate case for clemency—a model for the president to continue to restore vigor and integrity to the executive clemency process.

Notably, even the sentencing judge, who had no choice but to sentence Corey to life in prison under mandatory sentencing laws, agrees that Corey deserves clemency.

There is no doubt that Corey's actions over 20 years ago harmed society. And there is no doubt that he deserved to be punished. But does he deserve to die in prison as a non-violent drug offender for his first ever felony conviction? Absolutely not.

Sadly, Corey is not alone. There are hundreds of truly deserving individuals with clemency petitions on file who are worthy of the president's mercy. Many of them, like Corey, are serving fundamental death sentences for non-violent drug offenses. Something is severely wrong here. A criminal justice system that says it is okay to sentence a non-violent drug offender to an essential death sentence is morally deficient. Reform is desperately needed.

I am in hopes the president will continue to show commitment to his clemency initiative and grant clemencies at a much faster pace and to a much larger group of people.

This generation is in a unique position to help make a difference by speaking up and demanding justice. Mass incarceration is the most pressing civil rights issue of our time. We have to be BOLD and take action. We must believe in humanity and stood up for what we believe in—not because it is popular—but because it is the right thing to do.

In the words of the legend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”"

Be a part of making a difference and demand real solutions:

Urge President Obama to grant clemency to Corey Jacobs, here.

Urge Congress to pass meaningful legislation, here.

Brittany K. Byrd is a corporate attorney in Dallas with a passion for criminal justice reform. In 2015, President Obama granted clemency to two of her clients, Sharanda Jones and Donel Clark.

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