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I Spent More Than 6 Years in Prison. Now I’m Deputy Director of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice.

Bill Cobb
Bill Cobb
Bill Cobb,
Deputy Director,
ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice
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April 19, 2017

In January 2000, I was released from a Pennsylvania state prison after serving six-and-a-half years. In 1994, I had pled guilty to criminal charges of robbery, kidnapping, criminal conspiracy, and violation of the Uniformed Firearms Act. In January 2017, I accepted an offer to serve as the ACLU’s deputy director for the Smart Justice Campaign.

Did you just do a double take? I know. It’s pretty unbelievable. My story, like so many others in this nation, is proof that not only can people change, but that they deserve the chance to change.

Since my release from prison in 2000, I have worked tirelessly to restore the lives of people who have served time in America’s prisons. But my initial advocacy efforts were more modest. They were about me. I wanted the life I was working towards prior to participating in the crime that led me to prison.

My efforts to restore my life began while serving time in prison. It was while walking and talking in a prison yard with a man recently released who returned just a few months later. That day, I made the conscious decision never to return to prison. I am still in possession of the piece of paper I wrote (the first of many notes to myself): “I will not engage in behavior that is detrimental to myself, or anyone else, no matter what the circumstances.”

At the time, I had no clue that a declaration made in a prison cell would serve as a compass for the balance of my life. The decision to become a professional advocate came later, in contrast with many of my colleagues, who decided to become full time criminal justice reform advocates while serving time in our nation’s jails and prisons.

My journey to a leadership position at the ACLU came out of having to develop skills and abilities needed to survive in a nation where a perpetual culture of discrimination exists to permanently punish Americans who have paid their debts to society. My desire to stay free and live the American dream propelled me into the ring as a fighter for my personal civil liberties, and eventually for others, as I discovered that I had the capacity to take a licking and keep on ticking.

For over 17 years, I have sought out ways to use my time and skills to improve the quality of life for people living in communities adversely impacted by issues related to mass incarceration. I have served in a broad and diverse range of positions, from a volunteer at a nonviolence organization to the founder and executive director of a nonprofit organization that aimed to eliminate systemic discrimination practices targeted at people living with arrest and convictions.

Upon learning of the opportunity to join the Smart Justice team at the ACLU’s national office, I was unsure whether the organization would be interested in hiring a person living with a criminal history. Much to my surprise, under the experience and qualifications section of the job posting included the following: Personal experience being incarcerated or in other ways entangled with the criminal justice system, preferred. Preferred? At that moment, my desire to join the ACLU in my current capacity increased exponentially, and I hastily set out in pursuit of an interview.

Today, as one of two deputy directors of the Smart Justice Campaign, I am working among our nation’s most brilliant and passionate defenders of human rights and civil liberties. Our campaign’s goal is to reduce the number of Americans serving time in our nation by a minimum of 50 percent. Our team — along with ACLU affiliates, criminal justice reform advocates, impacted communities, philanthropic partners, and ACLU volunteers — is collaboratively crafting and executing strategic campaigns for each of the 50 states, providing each with a unique plan of action to combat the primary drivers of incarceration.

Each day I grow increasingly confident that the Smart Justice Campaign will be remembered as a significant driving force in the toppling of mass incarceration as we know it today. I joined the ACLU because I am a fighter. And today the ACLU is home to our nation’s best fighters. If you don’t believe me, just ask President Trump.

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