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A Night for First Steps

Photo Credit: United Photography
The Editors
December 7, 2023

Earlier this week, Puck and Arnold Ventures co-hosted a celebratory evening in Washington, D.C., to honor the fifth anniversary of the First Step Act. This landmark piece of criminal justice reform, passed in 2018 during the Trump administration, has been responsible for the release of around 30,000 nonviolent federal inmates serving lengthy sentences, as well as the retroactive reduction of certain drug sentences. “It has made the country safer,” said Kevin Ring, V.P. of Criminal Justice Advocacy, while addressing the gathered crowd. “It has made the justice system smarter and fairer.”

In attendance were many of the lawmakers who worked on the bill—including Rep. Kelly Armstrong, former Republican rep Doug Collins, and current house minority leader Hakeem Jeffries—as well as dozens of its beneficiaries, like Alice Marie Johnson and Matthew Charles, the first person to be released after the First Step Act was signed. 

The president and C.E.O. of Arnold Ventures, Kelli Rhee, kicked off the evening with an ode to the “pivotal moment in American history” when the First Step Act was passed. Collins, who retired from Congress in 2021, noted that “I can honestly say that Hakeem and I could quit tomorrow and say that we did something.” Jeffries, for his part, nodded to their unconventional partnership: “We had an opportunity to do something meaningful, and who knew that you could put together a coalition with a conservative Republican from rural Georgia, and a progressive Democrat from the People’s Republic of Brooklyn?”

While guests including James Williams, Holly Harris, Jonathan Martin, Grover Norquist, Jonathan Capeheart, Jessica Jackson, and Ja’Ron Smith settled into their seats, Puck’s senior political correspondent, Tara Palmeri, began the panel discussion. She was joined by Matthew Charles, who spoke movingly about the moment he discovered he would be released from prison, and Van Jones, the lawyer and media personality, who was essential to the bill’s passage. Midway through their conversation, Jeffries offered a brief cameo, in which he reflected on the bipartisan effort that got the bill over the finish line. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Tara Palmeri: Five years ago, this was one of the biggest pieces of bipartisan legislation that the Trump administration had passed. It was a victory for them. Today, you don’t hear Donald Trump talk about it at all. In fact, you hear his opponents—Ron DeSantis, Asa Hutchinson, Mike Pence—using it against him, saying he’s soft on crime. What’s changed in the past five years, and would this have passed today?

Van Jones: We were scared, on the left, to try this. To lead means to go first, and to walk into the Trump White House, as a left-wing Democrat, was scary. My armpits were itching; my throat was dry. But we had a prayer, and even though we knew we were gonna get torn apart on Twitter, and we knew we had 100 civil rights and civil liberties organizations against us at first, that my worst day on Twitter was better than anybody’s best day in prison. 

We had to get past the fear of trying—and then we failed, over and over and over again. This bill was written off by Politico four or five different times. We didn’t get it done in the main session—they threw us over into the lame duck. They don’t call it “lame duck” because it’s good! And we barely got this thing across the finish line. In fact, when President Trump signed the bill, and I was lucky he handed me the pen, within 48 hours the government shut down. This thing was done by the skin of the skin of the skin of a cricket’s tooth. And the reason I want to point that out is that it took courage, and because it was scary. And it wasn’t that we won, it was that we were defeated over and over again and wouldn’t quit. 

The last four years of Obama, and the first few years of Trump, were golden years because the economy was good in most places, crime was down in most places, and the grassroots of both parties were pushing for justice reform. We had the perfect trifecta, and we got it done. Now, the economy’s not good in most places, the perception is that crime is up in most places, and the parties have gone back to their corners. But Donald Trump is making a big mistake. Because not only is this the most consequential breakthrough in criminal justice in a generation, according to The New York Times, which doesn’t even like Donald Trump, but 88 percent of the people who came home did not get in trouble again. When you send people home and they don’t get in trouble? You’re doing it the right way. He should own this, he should grab this, he should tell other people who are sitting on the sidelines that this is something that he actually got done.

Tara: Matthew, thanks so much for joining us. You have been through so much, you have enormous strength and your life story is incredible. You were one of the first people to be affected by the First Step Act. Can you just tell me what it was like, how it changed your life, and how you’ve seen it change the lives of people around you?

Matthew Charles: I was in the county jail when the First Step Act was actually signed by President Trump. I had already done 21 years on a 35-year drug sentence, and I was just told that I had to go back to serve the remaining 10 years of that sentence. And when I was initially hearing about the First Step Act, I was glad because it was putting folks back on rehabilitation as opposed to just incapacitation. But at the moment, it didn’t have that amendment that allowed me to be safer.

So I was sitting in the county jail, I was actually watching, and then I heard Senator Rand Paul say that there was going to be an amendment that made retroactive the 2010 changes that President Obama made. And I was like, Wait a minute! Because this was the reason that I was getting sent back to federal prison. 

So once I heard that, shortly thereafter—and we had the television on both Fox News and CNN because we wanted to see it get done—as I was sitting there, the signing came down. I mean, all of our nerves was doing a little bit of everything. And President Trump let a lot of people speak, and we were grateful for those people, and we wanted to hear those people, but we wanted him to sign the doggone bill! So we was hollering in the background, “Sign the bill! Sign the bill! So once he ended up signing the bill, to me, I was like,  Wow, I have this opportunity to be set free again. So once that took place, I was having mixed emotions and things of that nature. 

A couple days later, my public defender contacted me and told me I was going home that day—and this was January 3rd, it was signed December 21st—and on January 3rd I was released. I was like, really shocked, surprised, happy, and all that. So I just had a mixture of emotions going on. 

Tara: That’s incredible. What does the future look like for criminal justice reform? Is it building on the progress of the bill? Or is it just trying to preserve it, and keep the advances that you’ve made?

Jones: It’s to build on the progress. And I will tell you, it’s irrational to think we can make progress—but it was irrational to think we could pass this bill. That’s the point, that love wins. Don’t forget that it was President Trump who let Miss Alice Johnson out—who’s here, by the way. It was her running across the street, her family hugging her, and her crying, the love of that family jumped in his heart, and he saw that he could do something that would make the whole world stand up. That was irrational! It was not a political calculation, because you can’t predict for that. 

There are a lot of human moments here, but love wins. And nobody loves the people more than the man that just walked into this room… Hakeem Jeffries!

Hakeem Jeffries: I’m always the Van Jones warm-up act. Thank you, Van, Matthew, so incredible to see you, my good friend and partner Doug Collins, and of course to Kelli and Holly Harris and the entire team, all of the returning citizens who are here, we’re so thankful for your presence. This really was a labor of love in terms of the opportunity to partner with all of you—certainly to partner with Doug Collins—to get something meaningful over the finish line on an issue that really has driven my public service from the very beginning, from the time that I was in the New York State Legislature, including six years that I spent up in Albany, and to the time that I transitioned to Congress and served on the Judiciary Committee. We had an opportunity to do something meaningful, and who knew that you could put together a coalition with a conservative Republican from rural Georgia and a progressive Democrat from the People’s Republic of Brooklyn?

The cause of criminal justice reform, in a serious and substantive way, brought us all together because it was an over-criminalization challenge and a mass incarceration challenge in America inconsistent with our values. It hurt individuals, it hurt families, and it hurt communities, including those that I come from, and now represent in central Brooklyn and Crown Heights and Bedford Stuyvesant, throughout other parts of Kings County, including Brownsville in East New York and the west end of Coney Island. But this issue affects everyone. That’s why this room is representative of people from all across the country.

Lastly I’ll say, the First Step Act is a hopeful thing. It’s evidence of the power of possibility. When people of goodwill come together to confront injustice, and advance the bar set by Dr. King, who famously said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. And I’ve always thought what Dr. King was saying is that in this world, there’s some good folks and then there’s some rough folks. And there will always be good folks and some rough folks. But as long as the good folks are willing to come together, speak up and show up and stand up for what is right, then we can bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. And that’s what was done with the First Step Act. 

Tara: We’re gonna wrap this up soon. I want to give the last word to you, Matthew. You see second chances happening all the time, and you’re promoting criminal justice reform. What do you think needs to happen on the ground level—local, state, federal—to keep this moving forward?

Charles: It’s easy to say that crime is rising nationwide, but by the same token, there has to be appropriate sentencing. Some people are addicts, some people are homeless, some people are just lost and have their issues. So we need to figure out a way to make sure every individual gets the help that they need before coming into the justice system, because some of them haven’t had any of that help before they actually broke the law.

So I just don’t want to see us going back to the old ways of saying, “This is the best we can do, and this is how justice is served.” Because we see how 30,000 people were just released back into society safely, and as Van Jones alluded to, just a small portion of those people have committed offenses. We realized we had people locked up that didn’t need to be locked up. They have families, and people praying for them. 

One of the things John Boehner said in one of the meetings, he spoke about the rearview mirror. I’m going to steal it from him, but I’ll give it right back! He spoke about how people who had been left behind, people that were still incarcerated—he said normally, when you drive a car into the road, and you look into the rearview mirror, the farther you go forward the less you see behind you. But he said it’s not that way with him, because his passengers are those people who were left behind, and they’re in the back seat. So I thank John for spelling those words out so elegantly. 

Jones: Everybody here could be on this stage. I just want to point that out. Everybody here has a First Step Act story—if they hadn’t made that phone call, if they hadn’t done this one thing… that’s how close it was. Literally, if everybody in here had done one less thing, we wouldn’t have won. And I want people to remember that going forward, because we can fall out with each other, and get mad at each other, and say I’m not going to help you, and This bill isn’t good enough. You know, the reality is that, at the start, the First Step Act was a little bill. It wasn’t good enough. But a dead bill doesn’t get better. One of the great things is that we were smart enough to get a little bill done, and keep it alive long enough. 

The other thing I say is that you talk about humanizing. There was a moment that happened when Topeka Sam was in the White House, and there was a moment where they were going to put a bunch of people like myself up on stage to run our mouths, and somebody had enough sense to say, give the microphone to Topeka. And Topeka went up there, and she sat down, and nobody had even heard her name. And when she finished speaking, every single person in the Trump administration stood up and applauded. That was one of those moments—you could see they were on the fence listening to people like me running my mouth, but when Topeka talked, it changed the electricity in the room. So when he says humanized, this is not abstract. We wouldn’t have won without those human moments. Every single one of you has them. Let’s stay together, and let’s do it again.