Courageous collaboration was in the spotlight Sunday at The Seminar Network’s winter meeting when Alice Johnson, a grandmother who was sentenced to life in prison and ended up serving more than 20 years for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense, talked about the Network’s role in her struggle for justice.
The Seminar Network and other prominent advocates, including Kim Kardashian West and Van Jones, had encouraged President Trump to intervene on Johnson’s behalf, citing the injustice of her extreme sentence. Last June, President Trump granted Johnson clemency, and she was released from prison.
“A year ago, I was sitting in a federal prison in Alabama as a nonviolent offender, hoping that my prayers for mercy from a life sentence would be heard,” wrote Johnson in an op-ed published Friday in USA Today. “This weekend, I will speak at a conference in Palm Springs, California, organized by the Seminar Network…
“Great things are possible when people put their differences aside and come together to do what’s right for others, including those who need a second chance,” she said.
Johnson’s case was first identified by the Buried Alive Project, a nonprofit working to eliminate life-without-parole sentences handed down under federal drug law through litigation, legislation, and building awareness. The project was started by Charles Koch Foundation grantee Brittany K. Barnett, an attorney and criminal justice reform advocate whose mother was incarcerated.
From those beginnings, Johnson’s partnership with the Network has grown to be part a comprehensive effort involving public policy, such as working to pass a law that provides thousands of people in federal prisons access to education and job skills necessary to obtain a job upon release. But it is much more than that. It also focuses on communities with support for organizations helping the formerly incarcerated successfully reintegrate into society, on education with programs that reduce the likelihood of criminal activity and research to inform better reentry policies, and businesses to encourage hiring practices that increase opportunities for the formerly incarcerated.
“Nobody can do it alone,” said Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries, chairman of Americans for Prosperity Foundation, and a national leader on the issue of criminal justice reform. “It has to be a team effort, involving diverse partnerships across all of society’s key institutions to fix what’s wrong with our criminal justice system.
“And it all comes down to people like Alice Johnson,” said Holden, “who are determined to achieve what seems impossible.”
Through Second Chances Work, Johnson is telling the stories of others like her and helping far more people than any one person could by themselves.