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As someone who personally experienced the devastating consequences of an unjust legal system, I am a testament to the transformative power of redemption. My journey to becoming an advocate underscores the urgent need to pass the EQUAL Act, legislation that aims to eliminate the racist sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.
Growing up, I found myself in a world plagued by gangs, drugs and violence. As I got older, I succumbed to my environment, was involved in gang activity and began dealing drugs. My path took a dramatic turn when I was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison for dealing crack cocaine. The penalty for 1 gram of crack cocaine at that time was the same as 100 grams of powder cocaine — making it a 100-1 ratio. The only difference between these two substances is the baking soda added to cook it; they are the same drug. The war on drugs specifically targeted individuals like me, particularly in communities of color, leading to harsh and unequal punishments that did not fit the crime.
During my time in prison, I made a conscious decision to change my life. I sought out an education and a connection with something greater than myself. Throughout my 17 and a half years in federal prison, I took numerous college courses, taught various subjects and earned multiple degrees. Despite my efforts to appeal my sentence, it seemed like an uphill battle.
A glimmer of hope emerged when I was introduced to #cut50, the organization now known as Dream.Org, that was fighting for the passage of the First Step Act. In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act passed, which reduced the 100-to-1 crack cocaine sentencing disparity to 18-to-1. Unfortunately the law was only applied moving forward, meaning people like me, convicted under the now-outdated crack laws, were still stuck serving 100-to-1 sentences that Congress had just thrown out. The First Step Act aimed to fix that by making the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive.
With the support of Dream.Org and my attorney, I became the first person in the Southern District of California to litigate the First Step Act, paving the way for potential relief. As a result of all these wonderful people helping me out, my sentence was reduced by five years, allowing for my immediate release. Seven days later, I reentered society, teaming up with Dream.Org to advocate for comprehensive equality in sentencing. Although I benefited from the 18-1 ratio, which was a significant step forward, it is essential to continue the fight until a 1-1 ratio is achieved.
Those who oppose the EQUAL Act often fail to comprehend the human aspect of these unjust sentences. We are talking about individuals who have served 10, 15 or even 20 years in prison, with some serving life sentences. These men and women are not statistics; they are our fellow citizens, who have families and communities to return to. Many have undergone profound personal transformation during their incarceration, actively seeking education, spiritual growth, and a genuine desire to positively impact society.
The goal of passing the EQUAL Act and ensuring its retroactivity is to rectify the wrongs committed under an unjust system. By providing these individuals with an opportunity for redemption, we embrace the core principles of fairness, equality and justice. As a nation that prides itself on these values, we must not turn a blind eye to the suffering caused by outdated policies.
These individuals are not simply seeking to reenter society and remain crime-free. They want to be contributing members who can serve as role models for younger generations. By addressing the injustices of the past, we can tap into their potential to affect meaningful change and inspire others to follow a different path.
I am now dedicated to using my freedom to make a positive impact on my community. Through organizations like Shaphat Outreach, I work with young people, teaching them life skills and helping them steer clear of the traps that ensnared me in my youth. I have witnessed firsthand the transformative power of education and mentorship in empowering young individuals to choose a path of success and fulfillment.
This Fourth of July, as we celebrate the ideals of freedom and justice, let us remember that true freedom can only be achieved when everyone is treated equally under the law. Let us honor the principles upon which our nation was founded by supporting the EQUAL Act and ensuring that justice prevails for all.
Together, we can create a future where equality and justice are not just lofty ideals but living realities for every American. We owe it to the families and communities affected. It is time to pass the EQUAL Act and pave the way for a brighter and more equitable future.
Robert Wood was born and raised in southeast San Diego. He was the first inmate in the southern district of California to get relief based on litigating the First Step Act. He now serves as a member of both the Federal Prisons Priority Committee and on the board of directors for The Prison Scholar Fund.