Criminal justice reform advocates discuss prison reform, mass incarceration

Media Credit: Ilena Peng | Staff Photographer

Van Jones, a commentator for CNN and a criminal justice reform advocate, said he faced backlash from Democrats after working with President Trump on a piece of legislation to improve the plight of those in jail.

Advocates for lessening jail sentences and changing the way the justice system treats criminals discussed reform strategies at Lisner Auditorium Tuesday.

Van Jones, a political commentator for CNN and a co-founder of the criminal justice reform organizations #cut50 and Reform Alliance, discussed the issue with several guests at the event, including formerly incarcerated individuals, activists and innovators in the field. The event was co-hosted by publication Mother Jones and #cut50 – an organization that aims to cut incarceration rates across the United States – and sponsored by Ben and Jerry’s, the ice cream company.

In case you missed it, here are some highlights from the event.

Working with Trump
Jones, a self-identified Democrat, said he faced backlash from members of his party for working with President Donald Trump on the First Step Act, a bill signed into law in 2018 to reduce sentencing lengths and improve prison rehabilitation.

Jones said both Republicans and Democrats had crossed the aisle to become “mass incarceration parties” until recently. He said bringing the best of both parties together was necessary to pass the legislation.

“We began to stitch together this tiny little network of people that could understand there’s an opportunity to do something here,” he said. “If you have liberty and justice for all, you suddenly have someone that’s very hard to stop.”

Jones added that the bipartisan progress made through the act will lay the foundation for future legislation.

“There are other separate issues that affect people that resonates in red and blue states that the best in both parties, now that they have found each other, are going to continue to work with each other together,” he said.

The impact of incarceration
Nathalie Baptiste, a reporter at Mother Jones, moderated a panel with three formerly incarcerated individuals who discussed the impact incarceration has on families and communities.

Marcus Bullock, a formerly incarcerated individual and an entrepreneur, said the impact of detention is felt not only by the detained individual but also the families of those in prison.

“My mom would be going through moppy nights of having her only son in prison wondering what her 15-, 16-year-old son was going through with other men who are serving life sentences in one of the worst prisons in Virginia,” he said.

Bullock added that the magnitude of decisions judges, prosecutors and those in the justice system make is enormous because of the impact not only on the individual but to other people in the community.

“This just isn’t a person who we are sentencing and stealing their lives away and throwing in these cages,” he said. “It’s an entire community that goes in cages alone with them.”

Women in prison
Pamela Winn, a formerly incarcerated advocate for criminal justice reform, said she was incarcerated while pregnant and did not receive the medical treatment she and her baby needed, which ultimately led to her miscarriage.

Winn said her experience inspired her to advocate for the First Step Act to prevent other women from facing the same difficulties.

“For those women who were left behind, I was so happy to be able to give them something, to know that nobody was going to have to experience what I did,” she said.

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