The Value of One Year of Freedom

Post Date: December 10, 2014

Cody headshotOne year ago today, Reynolds Wintersmith Jr. was serving a mandatory federal life sentence for a non-violent drug crime that he committed as a teenaged first-time offender. One year ago today, Reynolds had spent every day of his adult life in a prison cell. One year ago today, the story of Reynolds’s conviction, his life sentence, and his inspiring rehabilitation was featured prominently on FAMM’s website. Yet, one year ago today, there was no certainty that he would ever be released.

What a difference a year makes! On December 19, 2013 Reynolds was one of eight people who received clemency from President Obama. He had served more than 21 years in prison. Reynolds now works as a Chicago high school guidance counselor. He wakes up every morning and encourages society’s “at risk” teenagers to strive for hopeful and purposeful lives.

“The person I have become is my way of apologizing to all I have ever wronged,” Reynolds says. In many ways, through the work he does, he is speaking to younger versions of himself. The chance to interrupt the cycle of mass incarceration is a challenge Reynolds gladly accepts, because “counseling is not work for me. I have a chance to share who I am with young people and listen to their struggles with an open mind.”

In a criminal justice system that is preoccupied with numbers, statistics, ratios and formulas, the societal benefit of having Reynolds back among us this holiday season simply cannot be quantified. I do not appeal to you with numbers or statistics. There is no statistic that can truly capture the value of one year of freedom.

The value of FAMM’s work is also unquantifiable. With FAMM’s tireless advocacy, more and more people are now recognizing that mandatory sentences banish far too many people for far too long with far too little justification. With FAMM’s tireless advocacy, it is beyond the point of legitimate debate that mandatory minimums unjustly punish prisoners and their families and allies. With FAMM’s tireless advocacy, we have reached a critical point in our work to dismantle mandatory minimums.

Still, Congress has not passed any meaningful sentencing reform. But Congressional inaction must not outshine all of our action this year. We simply do not have the luxury of stopping because, once we peel away the numbers, the core of our work is about the lives of thousands of imprisoned people whose talents and contributions are being withheld from the world.

As a voice for those whose lives have been touched by injustice, FAMM is going beyond facts and figures and using personal stories of people like Reynolds to change opinions. That’s why FAMM is so important in the fight for justice.


MiAngel Cody
Staff Attorney
Federal Defender Program for the Northern District of Illinois