It could be said that Van Jones is a Renaissance man. Best known for his book “Rebuild the Dream,” a proposal to revive the American economy, Jones also served as President Barack Obama’s special advisor on green jobs, co-founded four nonprofits to tackle the country’s largest obstacles and regularly appears as a commentator on CNN.
Recently, the Yale Law School graduate turned his attention to mass incarceration. He spoke to NationSwell by phone from the Bay Area about the latest in criminal justice reform.
After so many highly publicized events — the shootings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, you could go on and on — people on both sides of the aisle are talking about criminal justice reform. What allowed this historic moment to happen?
“I think that the core values of both political parties have been violated by the massive expansion of the incarceration industry. If our country is a ‘liberty and justice for all’ country in the ideal, then both parties have their roles to play. The Republicans tend to be the part of liberty. They’re concerned about individual rights and limited government. Well, the incarceration industry is rolling over both those ideas every day. The Democrats tend to be very concerned about justice — particularly social and racial justice. Well, obviously the incarceration industry is the antithesis of that. It’s the antithesis of treating marginalized groups fairly. Both parties have their own independent reasons for being concerned. Then you have this explosion of digital media, social media and hashtag activism that has created a context in which both see the salience of the issue.”
For so long, our justice system seemed to rely on fear: We need harsh penalties so criminals aren’t out on the streets committing more crimes; we can’t change our policing methods because crime will go up. How do you combat that pervasive negative emotion?
“Both political parties were stuck on stupid for three decades. Democrats and Republicans were in a footrace with each other off this cliff to see who could propose dumber, longer sentences for increasingly petty offenses, and both parties got completely away from any kind of evidence-based, rational policymaking in this area.
“I think now we’re seeing another set of fears is beginning to counterbalance that. Crime has reached historic lows, both in places where there was excessive incarceration and in places where there was not. Crime’s been going down and so people can be a little more reasonable when they think about this stuff psychologically. But there’s also a growing fear on the right of increasing government power as more of a libertarian strain in the Republican party gets bigger. Their concern for militarized police, people being jailed for personal choices of drugs and even the NSA has created a counterbalancing set of fears within some quarters of the right.”
So, do you capitalize on that fear? Or do eventually you need to shift perceptions for a more lasting change?
“It took decades to get a system this big and unjust in place. You now have a lot of economic interests that are baked into the cake here. And it’s not just private prisons. You have public employee unions that are made up of prison guards who have a stake in the status quo. You have whole towns that have now been built up around prisons out in rural parts of America. They’re gonna fight to keep those prisons open because they’re looking at being a prison town or a ghost town. This is going to be a long process of unwinding mass incarceration. What really has to happen is a much deeper paradigm shift.”
Personally, how did you get involved in this issue of criminal justice reform?
“I’ve been African American for a very long time. From that perspective, it’s very difficult to ignore the racial imbalances that have been built up and even accelerated in our criminal justice system. Iowa’s population is two percent black, but 25 percent of its prison population is black. I agree with the author Michelle Alexander when she says this is the new Jim Crow. We had enslavement in the 1700 and 1800s, we had Jim Crow segregation and now we have mass incarceration. It’s another way to deny basic humanity and dignity and equality to people with darker-colored skin.
“I think a lot of people in the back of their minds believe there’s more and more black people in prison because more and more black people are criminals. And yet the numbers don’t bear it out. In fact, African-Americans and whites do illegal drugs at exactly the same rates, literally the exact same rate. So, if 10 percent of African-Americans are using substances at any given point, 10 percent of whites are. And yet African-Americans are not incarcerated at equal rates. Not at double the rate, nor at three times, but at six times the rates of whites doing the exact same thing. Now that’s not ‘These African-Americans should get better educated and pull their pants up.’ That’s literally six times the rate of incarceration.
“Now where does that come from? It comes from police assuming the worst about any African-American motorist or pedestrian and giving them extra scrutiny. They’re more likely to be stopped, and in those encounters, more likely to be arrested, more likely to be held without bail, more likely to be given heavier charges by district attorneys. At every step and stage, you end up with unfair treatment. It’s not that there’s a lot of outright racism. It’s not conscious — ‘Oh, I hate all black people. I want them to be in prison.’ It’s just this tiny little tickle in the back of your brain that says, ‘I need to secure this guy,’ or ‘I need to teach this guy a lesson.’ As opposed to the white college student to whom he maybe says, ‘Oh well, boys will be boys,’ or maybe, ‘They’ll grow out of it.’ But black guys appear as marauding, drug-abusing menaces. Those kinds of things make it very important for me to speak up.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.