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Congress Touts First Step Act as Criminal Justice Victory—But Critics Fear Bill Makes False Promises

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A major criminal justice reform bill is poised to become law after the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted in its favor Thursday. The First Step Act, passed in the Senate earlier this week with an 87-12 vote, would roll back sentences for federal prisoners, including mandatory life terms for third-time offenders and mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug users. The bill is now heading to the desk of President Trump, who has pledged to sign it into law. The bill only affects federal prisoners, who make up less than 10 percent of the more than 2 million U.S. prisoners. It has been endorsed by a wide range of supporters across the political spectrum, from the American Civil Liberties Union to the conservative Koch brothers. But parts of the bill explicitly exclude immigrants, and it has been criticized by groups such as the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of more than 150 black-led organizations, for encouraging profiteering and making “false promises” about bringing black prisoners home. We speak with Van Jones, president and co-founder of #cut50, a national bipartisan initiative to reduce the U.S.’s incarcerated population by 50 percent over the next 10 years. We also speak with Jessica Jackson Sloan, a human rights attorney and co-founder and national director of #cut50.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to look at a major criminal justice reform bill that may soon become law, after the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted in its favor Thursday. It’s called the FIRST STEP Act. The bipartisan measure, which passed in the Senate earlier this week with an unheard-of 87-to-12 vote, would roll back sentences for federal prisoners, including mandatory life terms for third-time offenders, as well as mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug users and those convicted of firearm crimes. The bill is now heading to the desk of President Trump, who has pledged to sign it into law, perhaps today.

The bill only affects federal prisoners, who make up less than 10 percent of the more than 2 million U.S. prisoners. The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world. The FIRST STEP Act ends sentencing disparities for convictions of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine, a distinction that’s long led to deep racial disparities in prison terms.

This is Democratic Senator Dick Durbin speaking shortly after the Senate vote.

SEN. DICK DURBIN: Let me preface my remarks by telling you about the worst vote I ever cast as a member of Congress. You don’t hear many senators stand up and say, “Let me tell you about my worst vote.” Well, I can tell you, it was in the House of Representatives. It was 1986. And because we were scared to death of crack cocaine, which was now showing up all over America, we created 100-to-1 disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentencing.

The net result of that, we thought, would be to scare America straight in terms of the danger of this drug. And it backfired. It turned out we had more drugs on the street. We had a lower price for the drugs that were out there, because of the burgeoning supply. And we started filling up our jails with people who were arrested for drug offenses, a 700 percent increase in our jail population, because of this new level of our war on drugs. I voted for it. A lot of Democrats did. …

We’re not finished. It’s entitled the FIRST STEP. What’s the second step? The second step is to learn from this experience and to find a way to reduce incarceration while still reducing the crime rate in America.

AMY GOODMAN: The bill has been endorsed by a wide range of supporters across the political spectrum, from the American Civil Liberties Union to the conservative Koch brothers. It’s also a major priority of senior White House adviser, presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose father spent time in a federal prison for tax evasion and other charges.

For more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Van Jones, president and co-founder of #cut50, a national bipartisan initiative to reduce the U.S. incarcerated population by half over the next 10 years. Van Jones was President Barack Obama’s green jobs adviser in 2009, founded Green for All, also a CNN political commentator. And also with us, Jessica Jackson Sloan, human rights attorney, co-founder and national director of #cut50.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Van, let’s begin with you. How did this happen? Do you think it will be signed today? What is most significant? What are you most proud of with this prison reform bill?

VAN JONES: I believe it will be signed today.

Here’s what happened. Formerly incarcerated people, directly impacted family members said, “We are not going to let the Trump administration go on criminal justice reform the way they went on immigration and on guns and on climate and every other issue, and poison the well. We are going to insist that the momentum that was developed under President Obama carry forward.” And those groups, mainly led by #cut50, found an ally in Jared Kushner, whose, again, father went to prison and who wanted to make a difference.

And it was the most remarkable thing to see Trump, who came into office talking about law and order and embracing the Blue Lives Matter movement and talking about American carnage and putting Jeff Sessions in place—really moving in a very negative direction—over the past year begin to turn. Kim Kardashian went in there and got him to release Ms. Alice Johnson. He began to add to his speeches some of the things he was hearing from formerly incarcerated people and from Jared.

And we ultimately were able to build, I think, the biggest bipartisan movement in the country, and got 87 senators to vote with us earlier this week. You can’t get 87 senators to vote together to change the name of a post office anymore. But on this issue, we finally had a breakthrough.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to go to the woman you just referred to, Alice Marie Johnson. Earlier this year, President Trump commuted her life sentence—she was imprisoned for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense—after her cause was taken up by the reality television star Kim Kardashian West. Alice Marie Johnson, 63-year-old grandmother from Memphis, released Wednesday from federal prison—released a while ago from federal prison in Aliceville, Alabama, where she had been serving her sentence for nearly 22 years. This is Johnson speaking after her release.

ALICE MARIE JOHNSON: When the criteria came out for clemency, I thought for sure—in fact, I was certain—that I had met and exceeded all of the criteria. I had 100 percent clear conduct for the entire time, my entire time in prison, no disciplinary infractions. I am a true first-time, nonviolent offender. And even the prison staff wrote letters about my accomplishments in prison. I had letters from members of Congress, the outside public. Oh, my goodness, I had so much support. … I was denied again, with no explanation given. So it leaves me wondering what more I could have done.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Alice Marie Johnson speaking while she was still jailed. But she is free. Earlier this year, Kim Kardashian West spoke to Mic about her meeting with Donald Trump on behalf of Alice Marie Johnson.

KIM KARDASHIAN WEST: I went in, me and Shawn, to really talk to the president about Alice Johnson and really explain to him why she would be such a good person to grant clemency to. I just feel really strongly that she has such a good support system. She has a job waiting for her. She has a home to go to. And she has such a great, supportive family, that just even seeing the work that she’s done while she’s in prison, knowing that she would never get out? … You know, she’s done her time. I mean, she’s done almost 22 years. You know, I think, in life, everyone makes mistakes, and she really deserves a second chance.

AMY GOODMAN: So, yes, that’s Kim Kardashian. She met with the president, and Alice Marie Johnson was freed a few months ago. Jessica Jackson Sloan, talk about the significance of this moment and then how you overcame the opposition of so many Republicans, like Tom Cotton, for example, from Arkansas and others. I mean, 87 to 12.

JESSICA JACKSON SLOAN: Yeah. Yeah, no, this is a historic moment. This is a moment where you not only have Republicans and Democrats coming together, you’ve got people from all across the country. Like Van said, the formerly incarcerated leaders, who said, “Enough is enough. We’re not going to tell our people inside that they’ve got to wait another four years before they can get any kind of relief. We’re going to keep fighting.” They stepped up. They organized in their states. You’ve got media from all over the country, everything from the Lexington Courier to The New York Times, saying this is one of the most significant criminal justice reforms and that Trump needed to get this done and Congress needed to get this done. You’ve got the National Association of Manufacturers. You’ve got Verizon. You’ve got the U.S. Chambers Association.

VAN JONES: Fox News.

JESSICA JACKSON SLOAN: Fox News broadcasting—all coming together, saying, you know, “We’ve got to get this done.” So I think, while this is an epic reform for all the reasons you laid out in the beginning, I also think this is a huge moment in the narrative around criminal justice reform. For decades, we’ve been hearing this Willie Horton narrative: “Don’t let people out, or they’re going to end up reoffending, and there’s going to be victims, and you’ll never be elected again.” Ms. Alice and this FIRST STEP Act are the antidote to the Willie Horton narrative. This is a turning point for the entire movement in the entire country.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you could tell us, Jessica, your own story, how you got involved, your own husband in prison?

JESSICA JACKSON SLOAN: Yes. When I was 22 years old, I had nothing but a GED and a 2-month-old daughter. I found myself standing in a courtroom in Georgia watching as my husband got sentenced to 15, serve six. This was—in my mind at the time, I thought it was a fluke. I knew he was a great dad. I knew he was a great husband. I knew he was a boss to 17 people, and he showed up for work every morning on time. I knew what a great guy he was. And to watch the system just take all that away, and watch us go into financial ruin and my daughter grow up without her dad there, just because he had a drug addiction, and then watch, you know, as he stayed through the system not getting any help, that’s what motivated me to get involved. And I think those personal experiences are what have motivated everybody, from Jared Kushner to Shon Hopwood to many of these advocates, who have been out there fighting for this bill and saying it’s time to get some relief.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Van, if you could talk about—well, I mean, some might say perhaps this was passed by many Republicans because so many Republicans are facing prison right now, around the administration and others. Michelle Goldberg has a very interesting “op-ed piece”: in The New York Times, the headline “Donald Trump Is Doing Something … Good? Conservatives get serious about criminal justice reform.” But she lays out the number of conservative political actors, not meaning Hollywood actors, but who did go to prison, I mean, people like Chuck Colson, of Watergate fame, who goes to prison and gets deeply involved with the prison reform movement, right through, right now, to Kevin Ring, president of the criminal justice reform organization Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a former Republican Hill staff member who once helped draft a law imposing mandatory minimums for meth dealers.

VAN JONES: Yeah. Well, I mean, the actual thing that’s happening, the incarceration industry has gotten so big, mass incarceration has gotten so massive, that now Republicans, Democrats, white folks, black folks, brown folks, poor folks, even some rich folks sometimes, wind up getting pulled in. And when you get pulled in or a family member gets pulled in or a neighbor gets pulled in or a co-worker gets pulled in, you realize we have unleashed a horror on this country. And you cannot get out of it. You’ve got to do something about it. And so, you do have people who are directly impacted, on both sides of the aisle now, who fought until the last dog barked, who backed McConnell down, who beat the dog crap out of Tom Cotton and won this thing, because people—

AMY GOODMAN: Cotton remains opposed.

VAN JONES: Yeah, well, Tom remains opposed. He got 11 votes, or, I mean, he got destroyed, because that old law-and-order, scare-everybody crap, he tried to pull that stuff, and Republicans voted him down. And so, you’re in a situation now where there is—a change has begun to happen. And, you know, this idea that Trump is just doing this because he’s going to go to jail, whatever, look, Trump could just pardon all his family members right now and be done with it and just walk off. I think that something has happened in—

AMY GOODMAN: Not for the New York investigations.

VAN JONES: Well, I’m just saying that for most of these—I think the cynicism—and, Amy, I’ve got to speak to this. The level of cynicism and pain and frustration that has now built up on the left because of this nightmare in the White House should not rob us of a victory that we have fought for now for 25 years, long before any of these people were in office, people like me and people who are listening to this radio station and have been fighting at the local level. And we have finally come to a point where even the Republican Party agrees with us. And I don’t want any of your listeners to say, “Well, I’m not going to believe something good is happening.” No, when we fight and we don’t give up, good things can happen, even under the Trump administration. Let’s not take—let’s not let the cynicism take that away.

AMY GOODMAN: And let me ask you about Jared Kushner, this all happening—something he is very much pushing and getting credit for—in this period of time, these months, when he’s been an adviser to the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, how to get out of these accusations that he was responsible for murdering the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Your thoughts on this? You even got to—you work with him all the time, but you even got to interview him on this subject.

VAN JONES: Yeah, sure. Listen, I disagree with the Trump administration on many things. I always say, I’ve got 99 conflicts with the Trump administration, but prisons ain’t one. And so, I’m not here to try to litigate everything that they’ve done.

But what I can say about Jared Kushner is, on this issue, he has been relentless. He’s been dogged. Everything he said he would do, he has done, which I can’t say about most of the Democrats involved, frankly, or most of the Republicans. And so, on this issue, I can say to you and to anybody else—and, Amy, as you know, I’m a founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. We helped to close five abusive youth prisons in California, stop a super-jail. I’m not a newcomer to this issue. Before I was ever on CNN, I was fighting on this issue. And I can say that Jared Kushner, on this issue, has been as dogged and determined as any other impacted family member in this movement.

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s talk about some of the progressive groups, like the Movement for Black Lives. The coalition of more than 150 black-led organizations has come out against the FIRST STEP Act. They wrote a statement, quote, “This bill is custom-made for rich white men. All of the carve outs make the vast majority of our people ineligible for the benefits of the bill. Moreover, by mandating post release surveillance the bill opens the door to increased privatization while causing additional harm to the most marginalized of our people. We believe all of this will be done while giving liberal cover to the Trump Administration as they attack, cage, and warehouse Black, brown, and working class people across the country.” The Movement for Black Lives also points out the bill explicitly excludes immigrants from access to early release and rehab programs and will direct money, say, from early releases to go back into law enforcement. They say the bill encourages profiteering and makes false promises about bringing black prisoners home. Your thoughts, Van?

VAN JONES: Well, I’ll say they should have told the Congressional Black Caucus that, because the vast majority of black lawmakers voted for it. And some of those things are not accurate. Let me say this—Jessica is smarter on the policy. Let me just say this: It’s called the FIRST STEP Act. It’s not the LAST STEP Act; it’s the FIRST STEP Act. This bill does not do any harm to anyone. The goodness in the bill doesn’t get to as many people. There’s good programs in there that don’t—everybody can’t participate in. The goodness in the bill doesn’t get to as many people as we want to, but there is not one additional piece of harm. Not one sentence gets any longer. Nobody serves an extra day. And that, by itself, is something of a victory. And I’ll say more after Jessica.

JESSICA JACKSON SLOAN: So, I just wanted to jump in and correct some of that misinformation, because I just don’t want to have viewers listening and thinking that that is true. And it’s just not.

I’ve seen the numbers. The U.S. Sentencing Commission actually did an analysis, and the exclusions actually are pretty much across the board for white, black and Hispanic individuals. Those exclusions are for a small part of the bill: the time credits that people can earn by doing programming. There are plenty of pieces of the bill that do apply to everybody who’s inside of the prison, regardless of what crime they committed, including the increased good time credit that people can earn off of their sentence for good behavior.

I also want to point to the crack cocaine retroactivity. That disproportionately is going to impact African Americans who are inside. There are going to be a lot more African Americans coming home in this first batch of individuals who are coming home than any other race, and that is because people fought very, very hard—Dick Durbin, in particular—to make sure that nothing went forward that didn’t include a massive fix of retroactivity on the Fair Sentencing Act, which had been passed almost a decade ago.

So, I just want to correct some of that misinformation on the immigrants piece also. You know, I’m sorry we couldn’t get away with getting rid of the current ban on people who are here undocumented going to halfway houses. We tried. We pushed. We were unable to get away from it. But it is just a continuation of the status quo. So, I just wanted to address those couple points, and invite people to look at FirstStepAct.org, if they want to check out all the wonderful things that are in this bill.

AMY GOODMAN: And how you extend this beyond federal prisoners? This deals with 10 percent, right? Two hundred thousand prisoners in federal prison. What about now the model being for all prisoners? What’s your next step, Jessica?

JESSICA JACKSON SLOAN: Well, you know, we’re already getting calls from state legislators across the country asking us, “Can we do this in my state? What can we do in my state?” And not just Democratic state legislators. Both sides of the aisle now feel comfortable. They’re seeing there was a clear mandate by Congress: 87 to 12, 358 to 35. I mean, just a mandate. And every single one of the amendments meant to be poison pills, slapped down. So, they’re wanting to get going in their own states. This really has made an impact on the narrative. And I think we’re going to see a lot of trickle-down justice coming from this bill.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us.

VAN JONES: Could I just add?

AMY GOODMAN: Van, you wanted to say something? Ten seconds.

VAN JONES: I just want to add one thing. This actually may take off the table criminal justice as a weapon against Democrats in 2020, for the first time since 1988 with Willie Horton. You now have—because Republicans are embracing, for whatever reason, Trump embracing, for whatever reason, now it’s a lot harder to say that progressives and Democrats are going to make it less safe, when literally you have both parties on one accord. So, politically, this is very, very smart for Democrats and progressives. We are now more safe than ever to keep pushing for progress.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Jessica Jackson Sloan, co-founder and national director of #cut50; Van Jones, president and co-founder of #cut50, also commentator on CNN.

This is Democracy Now! By the way, tune in on Monday to Democracy Now!, in one of our holiday specials, an hour with Angela Davis. She talks about her life, in prison, outside, professor, philosopher, activist. That’s Monday on Democracy Now!

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Nanette Barragán will join us. She just came back from the U.S.-Mexico border, where she personally facilitated the crossing of Maria, a Honduran mother who was made famous by the video of U.S. border guards tear-gassing as she took her children across the border this week. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Goo Goo Wah Wah” by Wah Wah Watson. That’s Melvin “Wah Wah Watson” Ragin, master of the wah-wah pedal, died in October at the age of 67.

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