It’s easy to focus on the wrongs of the past. It’s much harder – and, it turns out, much more life-changing – to fight for a future where those wrongs are made right for others.
Just ask Alice Marie Johnson.
Today, Alice is one of America’s most effective advocates for criminal justice reform. Her leadership was critical to passage of the First Step Act in 2018 that eliminated some of the gravest injustices in our country’s legal system and has helped thousands of deserving people regain their lives and futures.
More than 25 years ago, Alice had just lost her job, her husband, and her youngest son, who died in a motorcycle accident. She suddenly found herself a single mother of four facing foreclosure on her home.
To keep a roof over her family’s heads, Alice became involved with a drug ring. She didn’t deal the drugs, but she did pass messages and money between others (which she’ll be the first to tell you was wrong).
Alice got caught when the drug ring got busted. At trial, federal prosecutors made her sound like a kingpin. She was convicted and given life without parole – plus 25 years. And as the last kick to someone already so far down, U.S. Bureau of Prisons shipped her 1,500 miles away from her family.
It was a ruthless sentence for someone like Alice: a first-time, non-violent offender. As she later put it, “I was given a death sentence without sitting on death row.”
Yet like so many others caught in the “War on Drugs,” especially in predominantly Black neighborhoods, Alice’s life was ruined.
Alice knew that while she had done something terribly wrong, her life sentence was terribly wrong, too. But she didn’t get mad and seek retribution for what had been done to her. She did the opposite: She committed to live a life of contribution by helping others in her shoes.
Behind bars, Alice worked tirelessly to help those around her. She cared for female inmates in hospice care, so they wouldn’t die alone. She came alongside those with mental and physical handicaps, organizing the first-ever Special Olympics for incarcerated people. She saw that her fellow inmates had so much untapped potential. So she mentored them and even helped some write plays.
Learn how Alice built community in prison
Every day behind bars, Alice Marie Johnson gave hope to those who had none. Her actions caught the attention of others, until one day the president of the United States commuted her sentence.
Alice was given a new lease on life. But she knew she still had work to do.
The day she was freed, Alice vowed to fight for the freedom of those still trapped by injustices in the criminal justice system. She pledged her life to reforming the system. And she promised to work with anyone to make it happen. She’s now an ordained minister and works to bring people together from the pulpit. Her book, After Life: My Journey From Incarceration to Freedom, serves as an inspiration for people to turn to over and over again.
Now, Alice works tirelessly to bring together people from all walks of life. Black and white. Republican and Democrat. Police and public defenders. Businesses and nonprofits. Believers and atheists.
Read Alice’s advice for nonprofit leaders
She helped lead the movement that secured the passage of the First Step Act – the most important federal criminal justice reform in 30 years. Alice helped end some of worst injustices in the criminal justice system.
But she’s not done, not even close. Through Heal America, Alice is still leading the way toward equal rights and justice for all. She refuses to dwell on the wrongs of the past, whether hers or the system’s. She’s too busy fighting for a brighter future for all – and inspiring millions of others to join her.