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Opinion: Keep moving on jail, prison reform

Bill DeBoer

There are people in life that we meet who inspire us and drive us to push for change. Alice Marie Johnson is one of those people. 

Johnson found herself falling into dire circumstances after a divorce, job loss, home foreclosure and the death of her youngest son. She was desperate for money, got in with a dangerous crowd and landed in prison for a conviction related to cocaine distribution and money laundering. Considered non-violent, this was her first criminal conviction, and now she was sentenced to life in prison.

She owned her mistakes and said goodbye to her family and assumed she would never be released. Despite her life sentence, Johnson was a model inmate, even becoming a prison minister helping others cope with their difficult circumstances. From the moment she entered prison, Johnson made a pact with herself: that she wouldn’t give up hope.

President Donald Trump speaks to Alice Marie Johnson, an inmate whose life sentence was commuted thanks in part to the efforts of Kim Kardashian West, right, at the 2019 Prison Reform Summit and First Step Act Celebration in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, April 1, 2019.

The rest of her story is unlike most people who find themselves behind bars. Reality television star Kim Kardashian West heard Johnson’s story and took up a fight, using her own celebrity status to lobby President Trump to commute Johnson’s sentence. Johnson left prison on June 6, 2018, when Trump commuted her sentence.

Kardashian West saw the real Johnson, a loving mother and grandmother who wrote plays and worked in the prison hospice. Johnson’s story reminds us that we always have the power to shape our own destiny. 

Since her release, Johnson has authored a book and is touring the country working to promote criminal justice reform. She was the featured speaker in Grand Rapids at Calvin University’s January Series on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Following her presentation, I had the chance to talk with Johnson — a conversation I will never forget

In our prisons and jails across Michigan, there are countless individuals like Johnson. There are men and women who are quietly serving their time, paying their debt to society and counting down the days to their release. I know, I’ve been working with them for almost 40 years. 

It’s time to make changes in our state to make sure that a first-time offender can serve their time, be released from prison or jail and get back into the community and join the workforce, and get back to their families, where they can make a difference. 

Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, second from right, present a report on jail and pretrial incarceration to House Speaker Lee Chatfield, second from left, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020 at the state Capitol in Lansing, Mich. A task force is recommending an overhaul to bail, arraignment timelines, sentencing and other policies after jail populations have tripled in under 40 years.

Good people make mistakes and shouldn’t have to be condemned for life. Let’s offer a second chance to those willing to take it. 

The Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pre-Trial Incarceration report and recommendations came out last week. Included in it are changes that could make better use of tax dollars and provide a more equitable system of justice in all counties in Michigan. 

My hope is that we don’t just put this report on a shelf to gather dust, but instead start working on making these reforms happen. We’ve done a good deal in the last few years to go from being tough on crime to being smart on crime. Let’s keep moving.

Bill DeBoer is president and CEO of KPEP, which operates residential and non-residential programs for adult offenders as a community based alternative to incarceration.