This should be my 25th consecutive Thanksgiving weekend behind bars. Because it is not, I will be forever thankful for second chances.
Mine is a story, unfortunately, that remains all too common. In 1992, I was charged with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. When arrested, I was told that I faced a year in prison — maybe. Instead, I went to trial in federal court and wound up getting a mandatory minimum sentence of 27 years. I thought only killers and sexual predators received those kinds of sentences, not a first-time drug offender.
In fact, my judge looked me right in the eye and said, “I don’t want to do this.” The prosecutor stood up and said, “You’ve got to do this,” and the judge told him to sit down. He was mad. He said, “I know what I’ve got to do, but I don’t want to do it.”
That was amazing to me then, and it still is 25 years later. The judge knew all the facts of my case. He’d heard all the testimony for and against me. But he had no power to decide my sentence. Yes, I was guilty and deserved punishment. But I also deserved to be treated like an individual and receive a sentence that fit my crime.
Mandatory minimum sentences remove the court’s discretion to look at all of a case’s facts and circumstances. My judge, for example, could not consider the fact that I was an addict at the time of my offense, or that all my co-defendants received shorter sentences even though they were more involved in the drug business than I was.
In prison, I worked hard. I kicked my addictions, became a Christian, took an HVAC apprenticeship, and volunteered at a hospice for prisoners. And then a miracle happened.
In December 2006, President George W. Bush gave me the opportunity to prove I truly had changed my life. After serving 14 years in federal prison, my sentence was commuted to time served. The president took a chance on me. That second chance was life-changing.
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I have made the most of that second chance. Using job skills learned in prison, I found a solid job three weeks removed from prison. More than 10 years later, I’m still on the job and now am a supervisor.
Of course, justice should not depend on presidential miracles.
That is why I am thankful that more and more members of Congress are seeing the excesses of our justice system and staying committed to criminal justice reform. Recently, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley reintroduced a comprehensive and bipartisan sentencing and prison reform bill, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. I hope he will continue to use his power in Congress to push his colleagues and the Trump administration to pass the kind of reforms that would have helped people like me.
This bipartisan approach understands sentencing and prison reform should be a package deal. Rehabilitative programs turn into little more than busy work if we keep people behind bars for longer than necessary. I missed 14 years of changes in technology and job markets. Imagine if I had learned my trade but had to wait another 13 years to use it! Time and change are two things that never stop when you are in prison. The best way to help people come home and succeed is not to keep them in prison too long in the first place.
The Grassley legislation takes the right approach of making sentences more reasonable and giving prisoners better job training, education, drug treatment, and other programs to prepare them for release.
Prison reform will not work without sentencing reform.
Fighting for sentencing reform in particular is tough, as some think mandatory minimums only apply to society’s worst criminals. On this Thanksgiving weekend, now my 11th since being released, I’m living proof they don’t.
• Phillip Emmert, a former federal prisoner, lives in Eastern Iowa and is an advocate for criminal justice reform. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org