WASHINGTON – Topeka K. Sam knows the power of second chances.
"If you don't have hope, you have nothing. I realized that through my journey," Sam told CBN News.
The former union chairwoman served time for a drug charge. Now she's free, focused and fighting for those still behind bars.
"I was driven and moved spiritually to help women coming home," she explained.
Sam, along with help from the Left, the Right and the White House worked to bring change.
The group took part in a panel discussion with White House advisor Jared Kushner last week.
"If we want more prisoners to take charge of their own lives, then we should work to give them the tools to stand on their own two feet," said President
Watch his address below:
The president honed in on the importance of inmates paying their debt to society but also having a chance to do better once on the outside.
Now, the House is making moves to bring about change, passing the First Step Act, a comprehensive take on prison reform.
Support for the bill has created strange bedfellows, uniting conservative groups like the Faith and Freedom Coalition and liberal-leaning groups like #cut50.
"This bill, as its name implies, is a great first step in providing ex-offenders with an opportunity to redeem themselves, find dignity and become a valued, contributing member of society," said Faith and Freedom Coalition Executive Director Tim Head.
Among the bill's highlights:
- $50 million for prison programs, including faith-based initiatives addressing substance abuse, mental health and job training
- Banning prisons from shackling women during childbirth
- Allowing certain prisoners the chance to serve the remainder of their time in halfway houses
- Prohibiting prisoners from serving time more than 500 miles from their home
The bill's co-sponsor, Congressman Doug Collins (R-GA), says they're all things that will help keep inmates from going back once they're released.
Currently, about 50 percent of the prisoners released from federal prison return within three years.
"The question is: Do we offer them a redemptive path, or are we simply a punitive, corrective path?" Collins told CBN News.
Former inmate and activist John Koufos says it's about changing the process.
"Folks come out of prison, they don't have identification, they haven't gone through vocational training, and oftentimes a risk assessment hasn't been developed at an early stage," said Koufos, national director of reentry initiatives for Right on Crime.
"To me that's like going to a hospital, knowing you broke your leg but receiving no diagnostic tests, waiting for it to heal and then saying, 'Go walk,' " he explained.
Jessica Sloan, co-founder of #CUT50, tells CBN News the 500-mile rule is close to her heart.
"When my husband was incarcerated in Georgia, at first he was incarcerated about 350 miles away from us – that was still a struggle. You have to pay for the cost of gas; you've just lost an income in your house," she recalled.
"But when he got moved to 950 miles away, that was the end of our marriage," she said.
Sloan says she now realizes the importance of close familial bonds.
But nothing in DC comes easily.
Critics complain the First Step Act doesn't go far enough and fails to address sentencing, particularly reducing mandatory minimum sentences.
In a letter, Democratic members of Congress say real prison reform includes addressing over incarceration.
"Attorney General Sessions has made clear his intent to increase the prison population through prosecution of non-violent drugs and immigration offenses," they wrote.
"Sentencing reform would give federal judges the discretion to determine the appropriate sentence based on the individual circumstances of each case, regardless of the attorney general's agenda," they continued.
But Sloan says tell that to the folks still in prison now.
"I don't think that it's fair to ask people who are in prison to just sit tight until 2021 or 2025 and suffer through the inhumane treatment that they're getting inside and come out worse off than to actually start doing something," she challenged.
Advocates for First Step say a measure addressing sentencing will likely lose the support of the Trump administration.
The uphill battle doesn't end there. The bill is off to the Senate to face another challenge.