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A “First Step” towards criminal justice reform

December 20th, 2018

For the first time in 22 years, Alice Johnson will be home for the holidays. Now a great-grandmother, Johnson was sentenced to life in prison without parole for a first-time, non-violent drug felony in 1997. She had spent over two decades behind bars when her story gained national attention—prompting President Trump to officially reduce Johnson’s sentence and send her home free earlier this year. Johnson’s case set off a long-overdue debate around the country about harsh sentencing laws and the need to reform our criminal justice system.

We’ve long supported efforts to end mass incarceration and help individuals like Johnson get a second chance. In 2017, we collaborated on a YouTube video in which Johnson urged the public from her prison cell to advocate for the release of those serving life sentences for nonviolent offenses. We later partnered with Mic.com to produce a digital op-ed, which caught the attention of Kim Kardashian West and inspired her to take up Johnson’s cause.

America’s thirty-year experiment with mandatory minimum sentences and sweeping criminalization has too often imposed unfair and disproportionate penalties on people across the country. As a former prosecutor, I have witnessed many individuals and families bear the consequences of these policies—policies that haven’t made us any safer but have cost millions in taxpayer dollars and cast a pall over many lives.

This week, Congress—in a rare show of bipartisan consensus—passed the First Step Act, changing these policies and reforming our criminal justice system. The legislation lowers mandatory minimum sentences for drug felonies, reduces the disparity in sentencing guidelines between crack and powder cocaine offenses, and gives judges the discretion to shorten mandatory minimum sentences for low-level crimes. President Trump has already expressed support for the bill, and we look forward to him quickly signing it into law.

The Act marks an important step forward in restoring equal justice and due process and promoting consistency and fairness in sentencing. Moreover, the Act includes measures that will bolster rehabilitation programs in prisons across the country to help incarcerated women and men successfully re-enter society, reduce recidivism rates, and make our communities safer.

Google.org has long backed these kinds of efforts to improve our criminal justice system. We’ve supported work by non-profits promoting reform and by police departments working to improve interactions with their communities. We have promoted the use of data to increase the transparency of our criminal justice system. And we have launched programs like our digital LoveLetters initiative, which supports children with imprisoned parents.

While we’re encouraged by the passage of the First Step Act, there is still more work to be done at the federal, state, and local level to improve our criminal justice system. And we all have a part to play. As an example, our company policies seek to promote fair hiring by “banning the box” (requiring job applicants to disclose criminal history only once they get a chance to interview) and encouraging our suppliers to do the same. And we don’t accept ads for bail bonds, an industry with an unfortunate history of predatory practices.

We look forward to continuing to work with people from many backgrounds and across a spectrum of views, united in our belief that America’s legal and criminal justice systems can and should be an example to the world.