Van Jones may joke that he’s been an African American “for a very long time,” but it’s impossible for him to ignore the serious racial inequalities in the U.S. criminal justice system. With blacks incarcerated at six times the rates as Caucasians for the same crime, the multi-hyphen Jones co-founded the organization #Cut50, which works to reduce the prison population by 50 percent in the next decade.
During an exclusive interview with NationSwell, Jones discussed how the fight for reform is progressing and which 2016 presidential candidates are mostly likely to bring about change within the criminal justice system.
How has your organization #Cut50 participated in the [criminal justice reform] debate?
“I hosted a summit in March with Newt Gingrich — he and I became friends working together on CNN — and we thought, if we work really hard, we could get 100 people together for an hour, leaders from both sides, to talk about this issue. We got 700 people for seven hours, including 10 members of Congress, three governors, two Cabinet secretaries and a video from the president.
“Out of that summit, three bills were introduced and a channel was opened up between Koch Industries and the White House — mortal enemies, but not on this one issue. On, we collected 120,000 signatures from people saying Congress and the president should work together to get something done this year. We’ve worked as effectively as the other groups — the Coalition for Public Safety, ACLU, the Drug Policy Alliance or FAMM, Families Against Mandatory Minimums. We’re working very hard, and we’re very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish.”
In Washington, #Cut50 is lobbying for the SAFE Justice Act. What would that legislation do?
“The most important thing is letting judges be judges again. We so overreacted to the crack epidemic in the 1980s; we stripped judges of their right to judge and instead imposed mandatory minimum sentences. Even if you’re someone caught with drugs because you were forced to by a boyfriend who was threatening your life or you had never made any mistake before, a judge couldn’t say, ‘Well, look, the punishment should fit the crime here.’ In all circumstances, they just rubber stamped it and would give you some atrocious sentence. You can get 25 years for shooting a cop and 30 years for a non-violent drug offense. That’s the kind of thing that this legislation begins to address.”
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Even though Congress is talking about criminal justice reform, it doesn’t seem like the presidential candidates are giving it much attention, with a couple exceptions like Rand Paul. Why is that?
“They’re talking about reform more in this election than any other in American history. Even people like Ted Cruz have spoken out against mandatory minimums. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have addressed this issue, after being pushed by Black Lives Matter. But notice on the Democratic side, Bill Clinton in 1992 made his case to the American people by attacking Rev. Jesse Jackson, executing an African-American with mental health issues in his own state and putting more cops on the street. Hillary Clinton is having to speak out about the catastrophic excesses that have resulted from that kind of attitude. Even Bill Clinton himself has had to come out and say that things have gone too far.
“People pretend that Democrats have been good on these issues and that Republicans have been terrible. In fact, it’s the reverse. Some of the worst policies have come from Democrats like Bill Clinton, and Gov. Gray Davis and Gov. Jerry Brown here in California. Meanwhile, Republican governors like Rick Perry, Nathan Deal in Georgia and John Kasich in Ohio have actually been closing prisons. It’s not a traditional debating point, but it’s an issue that’s rising in importance.”
There’s a lot of discussion already, but that doesn’t always translate into reform. Do you think that now’s finally the time?
“Now here’s something that I think nobody knows. President Obama went to a prison, the only sitting president who’d ever been to a prison. Some people thought that was historic, but that was only a third of the history that was made that day. When he came out of the prison, he didn’t come out chastising the people who were locked up. Instead, he came out and identified with them. He himself had done some of the same things that got these kids in trouble. Now that’s history. For a sitting president to identify with incarcerated felons? And to point out, ‘There but for the grace of good and good parenting, go I?’ That’s extraordinary. That a president would have been in prison, that an American president would have been a felon — that’s a remarkable statement.
“Another third of the history that day was that no serious Republican in the United States of America attacked him for it. In fact, John Boehner himself said he wanted to have a vote on bipartisan criminal justice reform. Now this is a president who could put forward a bill that declared kittens are cute and he would be attacked by Republicans. This is a president that cannot get Republicans to agree with him on anything. And yet on this issue a black president goes into a prison and talks to black felons, and he doesn’t get attacked at all. Now that gives you a sense of the level and depth of the sea change on this issue. You can see in that one day how far this issue has moved in a very short period of time.
“We will get comprehensive criminal justice reform signed by this president, if not by Christmas, certainly by Easter. It’s the only thing that a critical mass of leaders actually agree needs to be done. There might be a thousand fights on the details, but everyone agrees it has to happen.”
This interview has been condensed and edited.
(Front page image: John Moore/Getty Images)