MiAngel Cody had seen enough of the criminal justice system. As a capital investigator, she listened to the stories of those headed for death row, and after working as a corporate lawyer and a state-federal defender, MiAngel Cody decided to look for new ways to use the legal system to dismantle mass incarceration. So Cody created The Decarceration Collective, a federal criminal defense firm that works to release people sentenced to life in prison on drug charges.
According to the Sentencing Project, drug offenders make up one-third of those serving life sentences in federal prison. The U.S. Sentencing Commission states that offenders can be sentenced to life if they are caught with a large number of drugs. However, “large quantities” under federal law can be as small as 1 kilogram of a drug substance.
Not interested in fighting for those who were “innocent,” Cody joined forces with Brittany Barnett’s Buried Alive Project to bring home those sentenced to die in prison.
“It started with, like, a text message one night, and we were like, ‘We should see how many people we can get free,’” Cody says. From there, the duo created spreadsheets of all of the people who had been admitted into district courtrooms throughout the country. They began reaching out to those with federal life sentences for drug offenses and gave them a survey to gather information about their case.
Seventeen people were released under their #90DaysOfFreedom campaign, where they used the newly passed law, The First Step Act, to gain their freedom. In their new Third Strike Campaign, Cody centers the stories of formerly and currently incarcerated folks who received life sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, specifically highlighting those affected by the notorious Three Strikes Law, a law that gives mandatory minimum life sentences to those who have been convicted three times with nonviolent drug offenses.
When The First Step Act was passed last December, it included a provision that made The Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, a law that gave mandatory minimum sentences to eliminate the inequality of crack cocaine and powder cocaine cases. No longer subjected to mandatory minimum sentences, cocaine offenders were able to receive reductions in their sentences or an early release.
One of the folks freed by MiAngel Cody was Albert Reed, Jr., who shares his experience of incarceration through the Third Strike Campaign. When Reed received a life sentence for a drug-related “crime”, he was determined to get out of prison. He applied for clemency and was denied under the Obama administration. The rejection for his freedom shook him to his core.
A year after his rejection, Reed received a survey, sent it back with his information, and was released from prison under Cody’s legal representation. Cody used The First Step Act to her advantage as a way to litigate his release.
In addition to cocaine offenses, The First Step Act also reduced the mandatory minimum sentence for non-cocaine drug offenses from life to 25 years, but it was not made retroactive, meaning those who have already been sentenced to life imprisonment for non-cocaine drug offenses, such as marijuana possession, won’t have their sentenced reversed.
Now, Cody is going back to free the rest, particularly those that The First Step Act did not consider.
“There are a whole bunch of people who are still sitting in prison today under yesterday’s law. And that’s really the point of the Third Strike Campaign. It’s to say if it’s unfair going forward, then it’s unfair looking back, particularly when we’re talking about black bodies being imprisoned,” Cody says.
As for Reed, he can now move forward. He is now reunited with his family and is still rebuilding his connection to his community by working with a basketball camp and a cleaning company. He has dreams of getting into real estate to develop some affordable housing in his neighborhood.
“Anything’s possible after this year. I say to myself every day, ‘Why not dream big? Because you blessed, and all you had to do is think it, and you can bring it into existence.’”