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I spent 20 years in prison for one mistake. I know the system is broken even when you get out

OpinionI spent 20 years in prison for one mistake. I know the system is broken even when you get out

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Federal supervision policies are supposed to help people successfully return to their communities from prison. Unfortunately, in many cases, they erect barriers to successful reintegration. The bipartisan Safer Supervision Act would break down those barriers, reduce recidivism and improve public safety.  

I’ve experienced the barriers created by onerous federal supervision policies firsthand. In 2019, President Donald Trump personally invited me to attend the State of the Union address at the capitol. But the decision to attend this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was not mine alone to make. That decision also rested with my probation officer. 

Back in the 1990s, I was a single mother about to lose my house. In a desperate moment, I made a life-altering bad decision to become a low-level player in a drug operation. When law enforcement authorities broke up the drug operation, I was prosecuted and sentenced to life in prison – even though it was my first offense and I had never personally touched, seen or sold a single drug.  

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While in prison, I never gave up hope. I bettered myself by working in the prison hospice, volunteering in the prison church, becoming an ordained minister, and writing and directing original plays. I was an exemplary prisoner and a role model.  

Alice Marie Johnson, who had her sentence commuted by U.S. President Donald Trump (L) after serving 21 years in prison for cocaine trafficking, thanks the press during a celebration of the First Step Act in the East Room of the White House April 1, 2019. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

So, when Kim Kardashian heard about my story, she became my champion and brought my case to the attention of Trump. On June 6, 2018, the president commuted my prison sentence, and I was finally free. 
 
Or so I thought.  

Though I was out of prison, I didn’t yet have my freedom legs. That’s because Trump’s commutation did not affect the conditions of my release. I would still be under federal supervision for five years, even though I had already served more than two decades in federal prison as a model prisoner and was clearly not a threat to public safety.  

While under supervision, I had to check in with my local probation officer, filling out paperwork to get permission to do simple things like briefly traveling out of my home state, getting a new job, or changing residences. These rules nearly prevented me from attending the State of the Union address and other White House events when the president himself invited me.  

Thankfully, my supervision term was dissolved when I received my official pardon from Trump in 2020. But not everyone can rely on a presidential pardon.  

Federal supervised release was originally meant to be applied only in cases where it was necessary for public safety. Unfortunately, it is now imposed in nearly every case. About 110,000 individuals are under federal supervised release — a 200% increase from three decades ago. 
 
As a result, case officers have become overburdened, often managing up to 100 cases at once. With probation officers overstretched, they cannot devote adequate time or resources to managing those who pose higher public safety risks, and this “mismatch” can lead to recidivism. 

Unnecessary supervision also comes with roadblocks that make it harder for low-risk people who have paid their debts to society to reintegrate into their communities. In 2020, more people saw their supervised release revoked due to technical violations — such as failing to make a meeting with a probation officer or traveling without permission — than for committing new crimes. 

Alice Johnson with Kim Kardashian

Alice Marie Johnson and Kim Kardashian attend an event celebrating Johnson’s five years of freedom and honoring Kim Kardashian on June 8, 2023, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for ABA)

Indeed, a quarter of annual prison admissions are due to technical supervision violations. 

These disruptions make it difficult for people on supervision to settle into their new lives, place unwarranted financial and emotional stress on their families, and can even result in job loss, which is particularly concerning since steady employment is one of the best deterrents to recidivism.  

These misguided policies also cost taxpayers $500 million each year—money that could be better spent on evidence-based initiatives that have been proven to reduce recidivism and improve public safety. 
 
The Safer Supervision Act, which has broad support from law enforcement, legal experts and criminal justice groups across the political spectrum, would tackle many of the issues that are causing the current system to fail.   

First, instead of implementing one-size-fits-all supervision sentences for everyone exiting the justice system, the Safer Supervision Act would require courts to conduct individualized assessments to determine if supervision is necessary, and if so, what restrictions are needed to protect public safety or better support successful reentry.  

This would ensure that the people who need the most support receive it while allowing people who are at lower risk of recidivism to fully stretch their freedom legs. It would also prevent probation officers from becoming overburdened with irrelevant caseloads.  

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Another critical piece of the bill is that it creates incentives for maintaining good conduct and reintegrating successfully into society. The legislation establishes a presumption of early termination once someone has served half of their supervision period, has shown good conduct and complied with supervision terms, and has been assessed as a low public safety risk.  

This will encourage more people to take the steps needed to succeed, whether that involves undergoing substance use disorder treatment, pursuing more education or maintaining steady employment.  

Alice Marie Johnson

Alice Marie Johnson visiting the Aliceville prison in Alabama. (Stand Together )

Other provisions in the bill also focus on rehabilitation. For example, it would give courts the option to send people on supervised release who are found in possession of illicit substances to treatment and rehabilitation programs instead of requiring a mandatory revocation that often comes with prison time. This would only apply in cases of simple possession, not possession with the intent to distribute. 

Lastly, the bill calls for a thorough report on federal post-release supervision and reentry services to ensure taxpayer dollars are being used efficiently and responsibly.  

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Too many of our federal supervision rules are counterproductive. Not only do they keep too many people who have served their time in prison and are not a threat to public safety from living full lives, but they overburden our law enforcement officers and make us less safe. 

The Safer Supervision Act will help change that, giving deserving people a real second chance while ensuring public safety. 

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE FROM ALICE MARIE JOHNSON

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