CNN commentator and host Van Jones has been involved with civil rights causes for years, including through #cut50, the organization he founded to advocate for slashing the nation’s incarcerated population in half.
But recently, he’s found himself under attack — being called a sellout and a sucker — for supporting a bill that would improve some conditions for the nation’s 185,000 federal prisoners. The First Step Act, which is co-sponsored by Democrat Hakeem Jeffries and Republican Doug Collins, passed the House overwhelmingly last month. It would make it illegal to shackle pregnant prisoners, release more infirmed or elderly prisoners, place inmates in facilities closer to their families, and increase the number of days inmates can spend in halfway houses or home confinement.
But plenty of people on the left are angry over what’s missing: There is no mention of decreasing stiff drug sentences, ending long sentences or giving judges more discretion. Opposition has come from groups like the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which have historically advocated for better prisoner treatment. Some opponents worry that settling for this version of federal reform would hand Trump a victory — and shut down the possibility of more aggressive change in the future.
Jones, who hosts "The Van Jones Show," thinks they’re wrong, and he sat down with The Marshall Project to explain why. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.
How did #cut50 get involved in supporting the First Step Act?
Hakeem Jeffries is a hero of the justice community. I’ve been a huge fan and follower of his for a long time. I agree with him that we need a stable bipartisan consensus to undo mass incarceration. In order to get there, we have to break this logjam that existed under President Barack Obama and in Congress. When we had Obama in the White House and [former U.S. Attorneys] Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch in the Department of Justice, we had a pretty robust bill that I fought tooth and nail to try to get passed. It had sentencing reform, prison reform, and every other kind of reform in there. In the fall of 2016, a bunch of people said, “Well, let's not pass this right now. The Democrats are going to have an epic victory. We'll have Hillary Clinton, more Democrats, and we can get an even better bill.” You see what happened. The lesson I learned from that was take the reform you can get when you can get it and keep going.
We improved the bill to the point where 80 grassroots groups could support it. And 70 percent of the Democratic caucus could support it. And 100 percent of the Democratic leadership, including Nancy Pelosi, could support it. The improvement process was something that might have even gone better had more people stuck it out the way we did.
Were you surprised to see some Democrats attack you?
No. I wasn't surprised because there are two different schools of thought in the progressive movement, and both have some validity. There's one school of thought that says, just from the door, “Do not engage with the Trump White House. They are racists and erratic and not trustworthy.” And then there's a different school, which is where I come from, which looks at the question a little bit more closely. There is a split in the Republican Party and the Trump White House between the pro-prison faction that [U.S. Attorney Jeff] Sessions represents and the pro-reform faction that people like Sen. Rand Paul represent, Rick Perry as Texas governor represent, Ohio Gov. John Kasich represents, and certainly White House senior advisor Jared Kushner.
Fielding attacks from Democrats is one thing, but there also seems to be a deeper layer of criticism. Supporting Jared Kushner’s agenda, to some, is tacit support for a Trump administration that has targeted or insulted people of color through rhetoric or policy. Did you feel that?
I don't think of African Americans as a monolith, and much more importantly, I wasn't the only African American who thought that the civil rights establishment had it wrong.
Don't forget the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, U.S. Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat, sided with Hakeem. U.S. Rep. and Democratic Party Deputy Chair Keith Ellison, as progressive an African American as you are going to find, sided with Hakeem. The Urban League sided with Hakeem. More importantly, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, plus 80 grassroots groups who are all dealing with actual day-to-day reentry issues and other challenges, sided with Hakeem. And now it's more than 100 groups.
It really became more of a split between some of the inside-the-Beltway organizations that have a particular worldview that is important, versus a lot of the grassroots groups who are really dealing on a daily basis with incarcerated people looking at the actual content of the bill. There were black people and white people on all sides of that.
So as somebody who has been frontline 25 years on criminal justice, you would want people to give you the benefit of the doubt. But if folks choose not to, that's just called democracy.
I get outraged when people like Topeka Sam, an African American woman who was incarcerated, brings a dozen formerly incarcerated women to the White House to advocate for reform and is attacked. I get outraged when Shaka Senghor, who did 19 years in prison and almost 10 years in solitary confinement, speaks up for the bill and gets attacked. On Facebook they were called sellouts, Uncle Toms. I don't think it's appropriate when formerly incarcerated African Americans are vilified this way.
Some say the First Step Act tears at the seams of a strong bipartisan coalition. Divided, that coalition won’t serve anyone’s interests because it won’t be able to get anything passed under Trump.
Where is this strong bipartisan coalition for sentencing reform? I know that they were able to get the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act out of committee in judiciary, which is good on the Senate side, but there is zero chance that that bill is going to be brought for a vote by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in its present form, and there’s not even a strategy to get McConnell to check it out, that I can tell. A lot of the Republicans do want sentencing reform, but they can't start there with a critical mass of their other colleagues.
I think that because this is one of the very few areas of bipartisan agreement, there will be multiple opportunities to come back again on criminal justice reform and to make progress.
Several senators have indicated that they will not support any criminal justice reform bill that doesn’t include ways to lessen mandatory minimum sentences. Was the First Step Act worth it?
I would love to see sentencing reform. Fought for it my whole life. Fought for it before it was popular. I just didn't understand why some people in the Senate want us to try to carry a camel through a keyhole in the House. If they have the votes to get sentencing reform in the Senate, God bless them. We couldn't find those votes in the House. We had to carry through the House what we could carry through the House. Nobody would be happier than me to see sentencing reform taken up by either chamber. But we had to get through the House what we could get through the House.
Here's the irony: If sentencing reform does now get taken up, or it's introduced as a part of the First Step Act, or there's some amalgamation between the two and something does get passed with sentencing reform in it, it will only get passed because we got something more modest through the House first.