Jessica Jackson clung to her baby in a Georgia courthouse bathroom, sobbing as she tried to get the 2-month-old to nurse. Her husband’s wallet, keys and phone — hurriedly handed over moments before as a bailiff led him away — felt heavy and foreign in her hands. She was 22. She had no job, no high school diploma, and no idea how she was going to drive his F350 home, let alone raise her daughter alone. Her husband had been sentenced to six years in prison — and she didn’t have a plan.
After taking a plea deal on burglary charges, her husband would end up serving three and a half years. That was long enough to completely change Jackson’s life. Left without options, the single mom turned the initial pangs of isolation and fear into anger and action and set out to change the system that ripped her family apart.
In the 15 years since, Jackson became an attorney and built a movement to challenge long-held narratives about crime — and the controversial policies based on them.
In searching for solutions to the issues caused by incarceration — including the impact it has on children, families, and opportunities left behind when someone is put behind bars — she ended up creating a powerful platform for sharing the stories of those who have been most affected. And she started by sharing her own.
These days, she divides her time between being a mother to two while juggling several big campaigns. She is mentoring Kim Kardashian West, who is studying under Jackson to become a lawyer, while spearheading a new strategy to improve the probation and parole system as the chief advocacy officer of rapper Meek Mill’s Reform Alliance.
She and #cut50 — the initiative she co-founded — are also working with Congress and members of the Trump administration to ensure the full implementation of a bipartisan bill considered to be the most impactful federal criminal justice reform legislation in a generation. It has been nearly one year since the aptly-named First Step Act passed and the diverse coalition of liberals and conservatives that she and her team helped assemble are now turning their sights to next steps, pushing for bigger changes in state systems.
“It has been very emotional,” she said tearing up as she talks about the thousands of prisoners who have already returned home. “I have had the privilege of being friends with some of them and watching them get their first jobs, their first cars, their bank accounts — it is a real honor and very gratifying to sit here 15 years later as an attorney and know that I helped reunite these families.”
Her shift from victim of circumstance into a powerful change-maker did not come easily or swiftly.
“It was tough. It was really tough,” she said. “But I have a strength in often not knowing what I am up against,” Jackson added, with a laugh. “I don’t think I realized what an uphill battle it was going to be until I was already in the thick of it. But then I was already doing it — and I wasn’t about to quit.”
Jackson had little more than a GED when her husband went to prison. She’d dropped out of high school, content to be a housewife.
That all changed when he pleaded guilty — on bad advice from a lawyer she said — to theft charges and was sentenced to six years. She was left with nothing and had no way to support herself and her baby.
She moved back in with her mother and formed a plan: She was going to go to law school. Her mother raised an eyebrow at the idea. “I just kinda looked at her and said, ‘well, I am going to be a lawyer,’” Jackson recalls. “I am going to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else’s family.”
In the span of six years, she graduated from college and law school, with honors. During that time, she would leave her daughter with her family or trade babysitting with a friend from school and lock herself in a room for hours to study. It paid off — only two years after graduating, she became the youngest official ever elected to the city council of Mill Valley, California, her hometown. In two more years, she became mayor.
But it wasn’t until a chance meeting with Van Jones, CNN’s prominent political commentator who had worked in the Obama White House, that she was able to take a big step toward her ultimate goal.
Over breakfast, they came up with something ambitious — and a way to build momentum with a bipartisan approach. Sitting around a table with Jones and Matt Haney, a friend from law school who is now a San Francisco County supervisor, the three outlined an initiative that aimed to cut the prison population in half. Scrawled on the back of a diner napkin, #cut50 was born that day.
To make big changes they needed a big goal. The sense of urgency was warranted. In a report released last year by Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy center, analysts found that if things stayed as they did between 2009 and 2016, it would take 75 years to halve the prison population.
Roughly 70 million people are already limited by a criminal record, and 5 million children are missing a parent who is behind bars. Taxpayers fund a whopping $265 billion across local, state, and federal jurisdictions to pay for a system that disproportionately affects people of color and often leads to more crime not less.
“To me, cutting the jail and prison population in half would still leave a much too large system, but it would force us to think differently and to fight differently,” Jones said. So, that’s exactly what the three set out to do, back in 2015. “It probably would have died on that napkin,” Jones added. “But Jessica is just a force of nature.”
The idea was to design an organization that would not only work to decrease the negative aspects of incarceration but also reduce the stigma and isolation that affects those who are touched by the criminal justice system. The key to that effort was launching a platform where the public could hear from individuals and families who had experienced prison first-hand.
“A lot of the prior law and order and criminal justice policy comes from faulty storytelling,” said Erin Haney, senior council at #cut50 and former national policy director for the organization. “One of the most important things we are hearing in conversations now is this understanding that justice and punishment are not one and the same.”
These narratives exposed the issues as those sharing them offered an inside view on the best ways to solve them. Legislators were already in the market for new solutions.
Decades of “tough on crime” laws had ballooned prison populations and the budgets required to operate overflowing facilities. Progressives had long attacked these policies from a human rights and social justice perspective, but as more research indicated that punitive policies had worse outcomes on crime rates than rehabilitation, Republicans were also starting to question the status quo.
Some lawmakers had also experienced incarceration firsthand or saw members of their families and communities put behind bars.
Chuck Colson, who was a top aide to President Nixon during the Watergate scandal, founded the Prison Fellowship, a Christian nonprofit to help prisoners and their families, after serving seven months for obstruction of justice.
Former California State Assemblyman Pat Nolan, who served as Assembly Republican leader, went to prison for 26 months on racketeering charges. Now, he is an outspoken advocate and director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform.
Others, like Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, said they changed their stances when evidence began to show that tough sentencing was making the problem worse, not better. Often, longer prison sentences lead to a greater likelihood that those released will recommit crimes.
“We have made some headway on reaching a more balanced approach on criminal justice,” said Marc Levin, vice president of Criminal Justice Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and head of the conservative “Right on Crime” campaign. “We have to have both justice and mercy,” he added, explaining that conservative legislators are responding to the evidence that “we can have both public safety and second chances at the same time.”
Jackson started by using her own experiences to bridge ideological divides. The first time she shared her story publicly was in 2015. She was standing onstage next to former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich at the Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform, speaking to members of Congress, hundreds of issue advocates, and members of President Obama’s administration, including Attorney General Eric Holder.
It wouldn’t be the last time. “I am not always the right messenger to talk to ‘law and order’ folks,” she says now, “but I do think there are formerly incarcerated people on both sides, people who have been directly impacted on both sides, and I do think they have a power in putting their faces out there and changing the narrative.”
They had many stories to share.
More: Once known for ‘three strikes’ law, California is now embracing criminal justice reform
Michael Mendoza, who started as Policy Associate at #cut50, is now helping lead the organization as National Director. But it wasn’t that long ago that he was close to spending his life in prison. At the age of 16, he was tried as an adult and convicted of second-degree murder after participating in a ride-along with a gang that ended in the death of a rival gang member.
He didn’t pull the trigger but was sentenced to 15 years to life.
Mendoza spent 17 years behind bars before being released under California legislation, Senate Bill 260, which aimed to help people who went to jail as juveniles start over. Since then he’s gotten a degree and is dedicating his career to working toward giving others the same chance he was given.
“I am not unique,” he said. “There are so many other people who have been able to succeed despite the difficulties and opposition they still face.” He hopes to foster a greater sense of empathy and help others get their second chances. “It is through this humanizing effort,” he added, “that we are going to get people to see that these changes have been beneficial for the entire community.”
Mendoza is one of many working within #cut50 who can speak of the issues first-hand. Collectively, in telling their own stories, the organization is hoping to expand access to powerful decision-makers. Their voices are now being reflected in new legislation at local, state, and federal levels.
“That is why I feel so strongly about the work we do,” said Alex Gudich, #cut50’s Deputy Director. “It is incredible to see the impact leaders like Michael and Jessica have. When you take people who have been harmed by the system — whether they spent years inside a prison cell or experienced the pain of a loved one locked up — and you sit them face to face with lawmakers who have the power to change it, powerful things can happen.”
It has been a winning way. The U.S. prison population hit a nine-year low in 2018, according to a report from the Vera Institute of Justice. But there’s still a long way to go. Roughly 2.3 million people are still behind bars in prisons and jails in the U.S. according to a report from the Prison Policy Initiative. The U.S. has long been known for imprisoning more people than any other country on Earth.
Along with highlighting heartbreak and trumpeting success stories, #cut50 magnified its efforts by partnering with both grassroots organizations across the political spectrum and big-platform advocates in an attempt to transcend divisive politics happening inside the beltway.
Kim Kardashian West was among them. She came on board with the campaign after she heard about Alice Marie Johnson, a grandmother who had served 21 years of a life sentence for her first-ever drug conviction, and was moved to help. Kardashian West was instrumental in convincing Trump to grant Johnson clemency.
Inspired to play a bigger role in the movement by that experience, Kardashian West helped spur public interest and excitement about criminal justice reform, using her platform as a megaphone. Jackson says that’s helped her organization bring together unlikely allies from across the ideological spectrum — including Trump — during one of the most polarizing political climates in U.S. history. Kardashian West’s influence helped convince the pro-policing president to support reform efforts despite the “tough on crime rhetoric” he had run on.
It also put them in a good position when an unlikely call came in from the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Married to Ivanka Trump, and part of a real-estate dynasty that brought in millions for his family, Kushner was an unlikely ally. But he had his own story to tell. He had watched his father, Charles Kushner, go to prison.
Kushner senior was a billionaire and real estate developer when he was convicted in 2005, after pleading guilty to 18 counts of illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion, and witness tampering. The charges included an incident where he tried to frame and blackmail his brother-in-law, who was cooperating with investigators, with a prostitute. He served 14 months in the federal prison camp in Montgomery, Alabama. Even a prison stay considered lighter than most was enough to change his opinion of incarceration in America — and his son’s.
“As soon as we sat down and he started talking about his dad and what he went through,” Jackson says, “I realized how many of the same experiences I’d had.”
Prison reform became a priority for Jared and he became determined to spearhead an effort to get Democrats, Republicans, and the president to support a new bill that would take a step toward bigger changes in the federal system. He reached out to Jones to talk about putting together a plan.
At that point, few progressives were willing to work with the Trump White House, especially on an issue that seemed ideologically at odds with the president’s rhetoric.
“At the time I was mayor in Mill Valley, one of the most liberal cities in the country, here in the heart of the resistance. People had just had their pussy hats on again on the anniversary of the women’s march,” Jackson said, recalling how she felt when Jones called to see if she’d partner with the unlikely ally. “But there was an opportunity to get people out of prison — so we said we’d meet with him.”
That meeting helped pass the First Step Act, a landmark criminal justice package, that has already enabled 7,000 federal prisoners to be released this year, with significant time removed from their sentences. Thousands more benefited from the bill in other ways.
Authored by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat from New York, and Republican Rep. Doug Collins from Georgia, a duo deemed the “bipartisan odd couple” by Politico, the bill allowed for provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 — which diminished disparities between sentencing for crack and powder cocaine — to be applied retroactively and changed mandatory minimum sentences. It expanded rehabilitative and training programs that help inmates earn good conduct time credits and set up an easier transition to life on the outside, and opened new opportunities for home confinement and compassionate release, especially for seniors and severely ill inmates.
The new law also bans prisons from shackling pregnant prisoners, prohibits solitary confinement for juveniles in federal custody, and provides de-escalation training for correctional officers.
It has been heralded as a rare occurrence of bipartisanship — a political achievement in such a politically polarized climate.
“It is the biggest criminal justice reform act in the last generation,” said Grassley, the former chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “There are dozens of interest groups both conservative and liberal, that worked together on this because there was an unfairness in the justice system created by the acts that were well-intended in the 1990s.”
Known colloquially as the “Zombie bill” because it nearly died so many times, pundits declared its demise and both advocates and critics questioned the possibility of achieving the bipartisan balancing act needed to bring both conservatives and liberals on board.
Republican strongholds, including a right-wing contingent led by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, rallied against the proposed changes for being too lenient on crime, while progressives dismissed the bill as not going far enough. A compromise was needed to gain their support, especially the advocacy organizations that were pushing for the inclusion of key sentencing reforms.
As the end of the year neared, 32 Democrat and Republican legislators signed on to support the bill. They were joined by a coalition of organizations ranging from ACLU to Koch Industries, law enforcement agencies, and a group of 50 celebrities, who all pushed Congress to pass it.
“Who would have thought that a plan to give incarcerated people a better chance would unite people in both parties and at all levels of society?” Jones told Rolling Stone at the time.
The campaign also included currently and formerly imprisoned activists and their families who not only made the push for change personal, they also advised legislators on how the reforms would foster better outcomes for people inside and out of prison.
It passed in the Senate 87-12 and 358-36 in the House.
Grassley said he was already in support of the bill, but hearing from incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, especially about the impact better programming has on enabling them to get out of prison and become productive citizens, “reinforces everything that I wanted to do.”
He has continued to oversee the implementation of the law to ensure the intent is felt in outcomes.
“You make an effort to train people when they are in prison, for a productive life outside of prison,” he said. “You make good citizens out of them, they are productive, tax-paying citizens, and you save the tax-payers $40,000 a year because they don’t go back to prison. That is what we are trying to do at the federal level.”
But the bill isn’t without issues. A federal law, it only impacts a small percentage of the U.S. prison population as 87% of prisoners held in state-run facilities, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.
There have also been missteps and delays with implementation, including uneven roll-outs of required programming and pushback from federal prosecutors who have tried to reimprison some who were granted early release. Some criminal just reform advocates have raised concerns that the years-long fight to fix problems in the system will stall under a publically perceived win.
“Many criminal justice reform advocates have opposed First Step for its shortcomings and their concerns are valid,” Topeka Sam, the director of Dignity for Incarcerated Women Campaign at #cut50 wrote in a Hill editorial last year, adding that, as a formerly incarcerated woman and advocate for reform, she understands the need for big changes. “The First Step Act isn’t perfect, but it’s a first step. And we need a first step. We need this spark of victory to light up the justice reform movement.”
Levin, the head of the conservative “Right on Crime” campaign,” agreed that while the legislation isn’t perfect, but said it has given a second wind to efforts in various states, including Florida, Pennsylvania, and California, which have large prison populations. It also changed the tone on the criminal justice system. “Who would have imagined that now presidential candidates in both parties are tripping over themselves to say who will be more forceful in advancing criminal justice reform?”
Meanwhile, Jackson, Jones and Erin Haney are focusing their efforts on probation and parole, often seen as a revolving door in the prison system, and have brought their strategy to the Reform Alliance, a new organization.
More than 4 million people in the U.S. are tethered to their records by probation and parole, and simple violations land many back in prison.
Rapper Meek Mill is among them. He spent most of his adult life on probation after being convicted on drug and gun charges at the age of 21. His 12-year legal battle officially ended this year but before then he landed back behind bars several times for small violations, including performing without travel pre-approval.
“We want to go from Meek to Millions — and get people out of the quicksand of parole system,” Jones said of the new group, adding sharing stories is still the core of what they hope to do. “We are going to take the people who have the biggest platforms and megaphones of the world and we are going to reach out to people who have no voice at all.”
Jackson has handed over leadership at #cut50 to Mendoza, but is staying on in a supportive role. She will keep telling her story, too, hoping to ensure others won’t feel the same sense of isolation, fear, and embarrassment she did when her husband was first led away. They have since divorced and Jackson is now a mother of two. But, she said, those feelings and her understanding of what families go through, still drives her desire to do something. And she isn’t done yet.
“It hit me early on, that the power of this issue and this movement is not in the policy, it is not in the statistics,” Jackson said. “It isn’t in the data or in any speech any politician gives—it’s in the people.”
Published at Fri, 29 Nov 2019 11:59:00 +0000