REFORM Alliance CEO sits down with Yahoo Finance’s Kristin Myers to discuss his organization the REFORM Alliance, the work it’s doing to build a more equitable criminal justice system, and his thoughts on what new leadership could mean for his work.
KRISTIN MYERS: Criminal justice reform has been a political hot potato over the last several years but has lately picked up more bipartisan support. So let's talk about what's next in criminal justice reform. It's my pleasure to welcome Van Jones. He's the CEO of the REFORM Alliance, a bipartisan criminal justice reform organization he co-founded with rappers Meek Mill and JAY-Z, New England Patriots owner, Bob Kraft, and Philadelphia 76ers partner Michael Rubin.
Van, thank you so much for joining us. I think many people noted how differently police treated rioters and Black Lives Matter protesters. And I'm wondering how much you think the events that we saw on the Capitol really underscore in your mind the need for criminal justice reform going forward.
VAN JONES: Well, I mean, it put it right there for everybody to see. Um, I-- I cannot imagine if a bunch of African Americans had, you know, descended on the Capitol, uh, you know, busted into the place in the middle of a joint session of Congress, tore up everything they could find, threatened to hang the vice president, threatened to assassinate the Speaker of the House, and then just walked out, [LAUGHS] just walked down the stairs and, you know, went and got a sandwich someplace.
Like, it's just inconceivable that that would have been allowed. And so-- and I think that that-- that discrepancy that everybody just saw, that occurs throughout the criminal justice system.
I went to Yale for law school. I never saw so many people doing drugs and acting like crazy people as I saw at Yale. The-- the amount of drugs being done on an Ivy League campus compared to what happens, say, in a housing project, you can't even compare. And yet so many people in the housing project make a small mistake and go to prison. Somebody on an Ivy League campus can do a lot of dumb stuff and actually get to go to rehab and have a better life.
And so everybody saw it. Nobody can say they didn't see it. And everybody knows that, uh, you know, there is a difference now in how police respond even to the most egregious lawbreaking when it comes to one community.
KRISTIN MYERS: So speaking about the moment that we're in right now, we're still in the midst of a pandemic. And a lot of folks have said, you know, this pandemic really just revealed inequities that we already knew existed. But we've also seen how it's forced a lot of politicians, uh, government officials to really make reforms to adapt to during this pandemic.
I'm wondering how you're viewing this moment right now, in the middle of a pandemic, in the aftermath of deaths like Breonna Taylor, like George Floyd. Now that we have this new administration that's incoming, a Democratic trifecta, is the time ripe in your mind, so to speak, for criminal justice reform really to happen right now?
VAN JONES: I-- I think so but for complicated reasons. First of all, the criminal justice system is a big waste of money. It's a big waste of-- of money. And as a result, there are conservatives, uh, Republicans who agree that some changes are needed. So this can be a bipartisan issue.
We have, as you said-- the Democrats have, you know, all-- both sides of Congress plus the White House. But, you know, Donald Trump signed a criminal justice reform bill. Obama signed a criminal justice reform bill. You know, this has become a bipartisan issue.
My organization, the REFORM Alliance, plus the Dream Corps, which I was at before, combined have done about 18 bipartisan criminal justice bills, um, over the past three or four years. And so there is some common ground here. But I think the urgency of, you know, not wasting money, not ruining lives for no reason, and not just adding to the sense of unfairness should push the issue to the front.
KRISTIN MYERS: So talking about some of those bills that REFORM Alliance has been a part of, your organization has had some wins recently in the state of Michigan. Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed reforms into law that are going to reduce probation sentences and overall decrease the state's caseload by more than 8%. What are some other states that are on REFORM's target list, if I can call it that? And-- and do you think that this win in Michigan can become a national win?
VAN JONES: Well, sure, I mean, also last year we had a very big win in California. Governor Gavin Newsom, who's a big champion of criminal justice, signed a bill that will cap the amount of time people can be on probation and parole, uh, to less than two years. You'd think, well, who cares? I'm going to tell you, that is a huge deal.
As much as we talk about, quote unquote, "mass incarceration"-- and we-- and we have a big problem with that-- 2 million people locked up. That is the biggest peacetime population in the history of the world times 2. There's no country in the world that locks up anywhere near that number. Even China only has about a million people in prison. We have 2 million. But that 2 million is only one third of the people who are under control of the justice system.
There's 4 million who are caught up on probation and parole. And that is a living hell, because you can wind up back in prison even if you don't break any more laws, if you don't commit any new crimes. You can wind up back in prison just for being late to meet with your parole officer or for going to the wrong neighborhood, not to sell drugs, but to take a-- you know, check on your sick aunt. That can get you back in prison.
There's so many different ways to wind up back in prison when you're on probation and parole. And the data shows it doesn't help to have somebody on probation or parole for 15 years. If they can get past the first couple of years and comply, they're probably gonna be OK. And so California is a big win.
We-- we want to see similar changes in Georgia and-- and, um, Pennsylvania, Iowa. We also had a good-- a good initial victory in Louisiana. So there are a number of different states that we are working in on a bipartisan basis. And we think it's just smart.
You know, who wants to hire somebody who is always looking over their shoulder and having to leave in the middle of the day to go talk to their probation officer? It makes it hard to-- for people to come home and do well when we make it so hard for people.
KRISTIN MYERS: Just a moment ago-- about how the criminal justice system is a huge money waster-- and I think that's something that we talk about a lot and we hear Republicans talking about a lot-- deficits. They're very, uh, very concerned about the US deficit. And I'm wondering if you can kind of just connect the dots for some folks about how criminal justice reform isn't just a social justice issue, but it is also a smart financial decision to make for the American economy and for local economies and budgets.
VAN JONES: Well, listen, we spend $80 billion a year, every year, locking people up. And 80%, 90% of the people that we lock up, when they come home-- and most of them come home-- don't do very well. And if you had a system that-- if you had anything that you were investing in that was spending $80 billion a year and had a 20% success rate, you'd probably wanna rethink it.
And, you know, we all want peaceful streets. We all want safe communities. We all want people who do dumb stuff or bad stuff to have to take some accountability and have a consequence so they don't do it anymore and so other people don't want to follow them down the same bad path. We all agree on that. There's nobody who agrees on that more, frankly, than people who live in communities where you have a problem with crime.
The problem is if you had-- I-- I don't know-- one kid and $120,000-- that's how much it costs to lock up a kid in California, for instance. If you took one kid who's in trouble, and you had $120,000 to try to turn that kid's life around, would you spend that $120,000 putting them in a cage and brutalizing them and having them hanging around other kids who are also being brutalized? Would you be shocked [LAUGHS] that that $120,000 turned out to be a bad investment? No.
So why not have some competition? Why not have a community safety super fund, and let some community groups compete for those dollars? You could let a Black grandmama compete for those dollars. Let a-- give one-- give one kid to a Black grandmama. And give that Black grandmama $120,000. That kid's gonna go to Harvard. You know, it's just like, that's the bottom line. Like, we are wasting so much money.
KRISTIN MYERS: So, Van, you know, the money issue is really something that's going to force both sides of the aisle to the table around this point of wasteful spending in-- in the criminal justice system. I'm wondering, you know, what are those areas that both sides can agree upon? Beyond the fact that this is a waste of money, where are those areas for compromise to move, uh, criminal justice forward in terms of reform?
VAN JONES: The issues that we've seen bring people together across party lines have to do with three things. One is the way that women and mothers are treated in prison is just unbelievable, uh, and horrible, and, you know, seeing people with their, you know, kids taken away. They're shipped across the country sometimes if they're in the federal system.
And so we've been fighting, uh, and winning these dignity for incarcerated women fights, uh, through the Dream Corps' #cut50 campaign with our allies, our many, many allies. And that has brought people together, because conservatives don't like to see, uh, women, and moms in particular, being mistreated and shackled when they're giving birth to babies and all kind of just terrible stuff.
Another issue, again, has been probation and parole reform. Most people assume that if you're on probation and parole, if you go back to prison, it's because you committed a new crime. You're stealing cars. You're selling drugs.
They do not understand-- Republicans or Democrats-- how somebody can go back to prison for a year or two years because they were late to a meeting with their probation officer. There must be other ways to impose consequences on people when they're under supervision than sending so many people back to prison for technical violations.
And then the last thing is just the overall issue of what we call reentry. You know, we should be in the homecoming business. When people serve their time, whether-- whether they should have served it or not, um, even, you know, all these people who want to see prisons being closed and dramatically shrunk in size-- what do we do with folks when they come home? And that has been an area of real bipartisan agreement.
People need to have their voting rights restored. People need to have the ability to expunge their record. So after a while-- look, if you commit a felony when you're 19 years old-- you snatch a purse. You break into somebody's house-- when you're 29 and 39 and 49 and 59 and 69, you still can't rent an apartment. You still can't get a student loan. You still can't, you know, get a lot of different kinds of jobs. That doesn't make any sense.
And so, you know, all of these things around housing and jobs and education and stuff like that, when people come home, is another area of-- of common ground. And if we can have people come home more successfully, that stops the revolving door of people going back in and back in and back in. You know, any system that was-- had this kind of failure rate-- 80%, you know, failure rate-- would have been rethought a long time ago.
KRISTIN MYERS: You know, I think when a lot of Americans think about politicians coming together across the aisle to get something done, speed is not exactly an-- an adjective that you would ascribe to that process.
VAN JONES: Yeah.
KRISTIN MYERS: And to that end, what's some of the low-hanging fruit that can be done pretty quickly and pretty easily when it comes to reform?
VAN JONES: Well, I mean, I think there's some things, let's say, on the policing side. I think the idea of having co-responders, uh, going along, riding along with police, uh, who are trained in mental health, who are trained in coaching, who are trained in de-escalation so we aren't just sending police into communities where they may not know anybody. And they may tend to overreact. You have people who are trained to go into situations with no weapons and to calm things down.
So I think the idea of co-responders, which frankly the Trump administration has signed onto, is something on the police reform side. On the criminal justice side, um, as I said, I think the low-hanging fruit has to do with, um, you know, the reentry process. I think on the front end, which is where I think a lot of where it has to happen, people are very concerned.
Why are these sentences so long in the first place? Why are people being, you know, disproportionately policed and jailed in the first place? That is, uh, not low-hanging fruit. But that's the center of the battle.
The low-hanging fruit and a good place to start is no matter what they did when they got arrested, at some point, they're coming home. And they should come home job ready, transformed, and set up to succeed. We've got to stop paying to set up these trap doors into failure, which are these impossible probation conditions, impossible parole conditions, um, with no opportunity for jobs or any redemption. Those-- those are trapdoors into failures.
We need to be building springboards to success by getting people the help that they need to get on with their lives. And so I think the low-hanging fruit is everything that happens to people when they leave prison, when they've, quote unquote, "served their time." They've paid their debts. And they need a new shot. That's where I think we can do a lot better without a lot of bipartisan-- without a lot of partisan conflict.
KRISTIN MYERS: You just mentioned the Trump administration and some of the moves that they made, uh, for reform. We have a new administration about to take oath of office. What should the top priorities be for a Biden-Harris administration? And-- and how best do you think they need to effectively get them done?
VAN JONES: Well, the good thing about the Obama administration was even though they didn't pass a bunch of laws on criminal justice-- they passed a couple-- but they made sure the Department of Justice was not focused on just giving people these long sentences, you know, just throwing the book at people. For a long time, the Department of Justice prided itself on taking somebody who's a nonviolent drug offender, um, to use that old phrase, and giving them 30 years or 50 years or two lifetimes or whatever.
And that's-- it doesn't make any sense. So Obama changed that. Trump unfortunately changed it back, um, all too often. And so, uh, I think, you know, Biden has a chance to go back to what was working under Obama, which is to make sure you're reserving your harshest punishment for your toughest cases and not wasting a whole bunch of money on people who really-- there are other alternatives.
And um, and you don't have to change any laws to do that. Biden-- there's a lot of stuff that Biden's attorney general, Merrick Garland, can do that does not require a single vote in Congress. They can just stop charging and overcharging, um, a bunch of these different categories. And you could see a real big difference in terms of right away, changes at least at the federal level.
KRISTIN MYERS: All right, Van Jones, CEO of the bipartisan criminal justice reform organization the REFORM Alliance, thanks so much for joining us.
VAN JONES: Thank you.