DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – Three years ago, Meida Vasquez was a North Texas secretary; a mom with no criminal record. Then she and several relatives were snared in a federal probe and convicted on conspiracy charges.
“I made a bad choice,” admits Vasquez, “a bad choice that changed the rest of my life.”
Now, two months following her release from prison, she is still feeling the impact of that choice. “It’s been hard. I am now a felon… a felon and it is really hard to get a job. It’s really hard for people to trust you. It’s really been overwhelming.”
So Vasquez is celebrating the Senate passage of what’s called the ‘First Step’ bill. The rare bipartisian legislation addresses prison overcrowding, and creates a fairer system for sentencing non-violent drug offenders. It eases the three strikes rule by reducing a mandatory life sentence for some drug offenders to 25 years.
“My brother was just sentenced last week… conspiracy,” says Vasquez. “It was a non-violent crime…and he was sentenced to life. Life!”
The bill also improves early release opportunities and expands job training: a key component, advocates say, to reducing recidivism.
“This will change their lives,” says Jennifer Leney with Volunteers of America, “it can give them hope that they can come out, sooner. It will give them hope that they still have a future when they get out. And if they can get some classes and training behind them when they’re in there, when they come out, they will be a better, more productive member of society. We are crazy if we don’t make these changes.”
Volunteers of America helps the formerly incarcerated rebuild their lives. She says the ‘First Step’ bill is the right step for her clients and the communities they call home.
“The reality is, if somebody has been incarcerated, their children are 7x more likely to also be incarcerated, so again, as a society we need to fix it,” says Leney. “We need to break the cycles of incarceration.”
With that goal in mind, Vasquez has become a fan of weekly ‘conversation and connection’ events hosted by local staffing form ‘Cornbread Hustle’.
Founder Cheri Garcia says the idea is to bring together both business owners, and former inmates looking for inspiration and opportunities to find a different path.
“Our jails are full, our prisons are full, we have to make some changes,” says Leney.
If the bill becomes law, and there is every indication that it will, it will only apply to federal prisons. Nevertheless, supporters say they hope it becomes so successful that states follow suit.
“We prayed for this and it went through,” says Vasquez, “this is a big breakthrough. My heart is so full of gratitude, yes.”