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OPINION | COLUMNISTS: We need the gift of reform

by Christopher 2X and Topeka K. Sam The Washington Post | December 26, 2020 at 10:20 a.m.

In this holiday season, in a year of racial unrest, record gun violence in our cities, and a devastating pandemic, we received a blessing -- a presidential pardon for our drug convictions.

We are extremely grateful. We're fortunate to have many friends who have supported our work for justice, second chances and nonviolence since we left prison. They vouched for us even though a pardon wasn't something we requested for ourselves.

The blessing of a pardon, however, comes with a stark reminder of so many thousands who are not as fortunate as we are. They are still stuck in a still flawed justice system that prizes the punitive over the rehabilitative -- and they should not be. For every one of us, there are thousands who are powerless and voiceless, who do not deserve the harsh punishment and treatment they've received in our criminal justice system and whose names will never appear before a president for a pardon.

Because pardons alone can't solve what needs fixing.

If we've all learned anything from the brutal killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, and from the cries for racial justice that rose up from the streets of our nation, it's that we must rethink policing and reform our criminal justice system. We call again for lawmakers, regardless of party, to take action.

We incarcerate too many Black people, with horrible impacts on Black communities and families that last for generations -- including distrust of government and police, and an inability for many to see the humanity in each other, even at early ages. To young Black people, understandably, and tragically, the government is the demon.

It doesn't have to be that way, and if we want safer, more just communities, it's unsustainable.

But if we are ever going to coexist in peace so all children can reach their potential, we must reverse our history of racial injustice -- a history, and a present, in which people of color have been excluded from the economy and society.

Governments can draft laws and policies, retrain police and form citizen oversight committees to help build a more equitable policing and criminal justice system, improving the lives of Black citizens. Governments can also help by giving judges more resources, including treatment programs instead of prison, and family supports so all children of poor Black families have a shot at a fulfilling life.

Real reform comes down to how we treat each other. We must show every human basic dignity and respect.

If we're serious, we must start with how we treat Black children. Too many suffer because of poverty and trauma, often because they've been exposed to violence, including gun violence. Christopher knows because he's often the first one families in Louisville call when they've lost a loved one to gun violence. Kids who lose their parents or siblings are often not in an emotional state where they can learn in school. We can't give up on them, just as we would not give up on a child with a physical illness.

Sadly, there are many children with similar experiences who don't get the help they need from caring adults and end up on a path to prison or worse.

The same goes for women. Women, especially women of color, are the fastest-growing group among incarcerated Americans. Many are mothers of young children or are pregnant. Some are arbitrarily incarcerated hundreds of miles from their children. And, shockingly, incarcerated mothers have only recently started to be relieved from delivering infants while shackled.

Nearly all lack the support that Topeka was lucky to have from her parents, brothers, friends and allies including philanthropists who have realized the value of the Ladies of Hope Ministries, which she founded after leaving prison six years ago to help women transition back to society after incarceration. It is also why she advocates for women's dignity bills with policymakers -- and why she focuses on clemency as well as pretrial, prison, sentencing and parole reforms through a variety of nonprofits focusing on advocacy and legislation in her home state of New York, and nationally.

We're grateful to be pardoned for our convictions. We strove, when we left prison, to atone for the pain we inflicted on our family and friends, which gave us the motivation to work for justice and peace.

We plan to use our pardons as an example to others that there is such a thing as redemption in this country. But we intend to keep fighting for change, in our laws and across society. We must keep working intentionally and with determination to build a more equitable, just society, one in which everyone is treated with dignity and respect.

Christopher 2X is executive director of the nonprofit Christopher 2X Game Changers Inc. Topeka K. Sam is founder and executive director of the Ladies of Hope Ministries and senior adviser to New Yorkers United for Justice.

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