BILLINGS — In her late 20s, Jennifer Devereaux was sentenced to prison for three-and-a-half years on her first drug charge. In 2005, a few years after being released from her first prison sentence, she found herself battling with addiction again, arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison for the intent to distribute methamphetamine.
Fifteen years into her sentence, a new law passed that gave Devereaux some hope.
“It was really emotional because I really didn’t think I had a chance,” she said on Saturday. “The First Step Act is just probably the best thing that has happened in legislation for people who have drug offenses. It’s the best thing that’s happened in years and years and years.”
The First Step Act is a criminal justice reform law that was passed in 2018 and was designed to promote rehabilitation and reduce the size of the federal prison population. Devereaux watched as women who had been in prison much longer than she had, and who had much more time to serve on their sentences, get released from prison.
“It was amazing that they gave us the ability to get back into court, on our own and argue our own case. Our own reason to get out, which is under a compassionate release, and that’s how I won. It was for a sentencing disparity,” Devereaux said.
After serving 18 years, in March of 2023 Devereaux used the law to become a free woman. It was a day she remembers well.
“My heart was just bursting, I was like, 'Man, I’m going to be free. I’m going to be able to see my family, be able to be with my dad',” she said.
Devereaux was raised by her father and was looking forward to getting to be with him again.
While spending time with family, Devereaux also recently spent time in Washington, D.C. with the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, speaking with congressional lawmakers about the impacts the legislation has on people's lives.
“I never saw myself in this kind of position and I feel honored to do so. It makes me feel a little emotional, but it’s just a way for me to be able to maybe make up for the past. Everything that I’ve done, you know, the life that I lived, and just be able to give back in some way,” she said.
Devereaux hopes to continue giving back by advocating for reform and speaking with teenagers about avoiding a fate similar to hers.
She recently went to Lodge Grass Public Schools with the One Heart Warrior group, a training program for adults looking to become leaders, and spoke to small groups of teens.
“I want to help younger kids because that’s where it all started for me when I was younger, a teenager. I wish someone would have stepped in for me. So, that’s what I want to do, especially younger girls. I have a heart for the younger girls,” she said.