Editor’s Note: Van Jones is a CNN political commentator. He is the co-founder of #cut50, a national, bipartisan criminal justice organization fighting to safely and smartly reduce the prison population while keeping communities safe. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Conventional wisdom told us that we should have lost all hope for any federal criminal justice reform after President Donald Trump was elected. His law and order rhetoric as a candidate and his nomination, as President, of Jeff Sessions to be Attorney General were alarming.
However, as of Thursday, Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and adviser, may have resurrected the possibility of some grudging forward motion, even in the Trump era.
Prior to Trump’s nomination as the Republican Party’s candidate for the presidency, both political parties had been moving in a positive direction on fixing our broken criminal justice system. In 2015, I co-hosted a Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform with Newt Gingrich, Pat Nolan and Donna Brazile. Speakers ranging from then-Attorney General Eric Holder to conservative Georgia Governor Nathan Deal all agreed that the system was unnecessarily funneling people struggling with addiction, mental illness and poverty into our prisons and jails.
And over the past several years, a few brave Republican governors and party leaders led the charge in making a three-pronged conservative argument against a criminal justice system that encroaches on individual liberties, wastes financial resources and infringes on Christian values of redemption and mercy.
The Bipartisan Summit and several other bipartisan efforts spurred intense debate on Capitol Hill – nearly resulting in an overhaul of the federal justice system during the last Congressional session.
And while a comprehensive criminal justice overhaul fell short, progress was made through the 21st Century CURES Act in a lame-duck compromise. That bill bundled $1 billion in spending to fight the opioid epidemic with $2 billion in funding for Vice President Joe Biden’s cancer research “moonshot” and alternatives to incarceration for people suffering from mental illness and substance abuse. It also established training programs for law enforcement officers and prison guards in identifying and effectively responding to individuals with mental illness.
But the election of Trump seemed to have killed all hope of progress – and introduced the specter of a rapid rollback to the worst days of the ill-considered drug war.
Within the first months of Trump’s presidency, his administration reversed much of the progress made during President Barack Obama’s tenure. Doubling down on the use of private prisons, rolling back consent decrees and oversight of some of America’s most troubled police departments, and promising to seek the harshest punishments even in the case of low-level drug crimes.
And Sessions recently rescinded an Obama-era memo to judges discouraging them from incarcerating people for not being able to pay fines and fees, and announced he would give US attorneys discretion on prosecuting marijuana cases in states where the drug had been legalized. Because of these actions, the federal prison population is predicted to increase this year, after a period of steep decline under the Obama administration. Unfortunately, we know communities of color will be disproportionately harmed.
And yet, Kushner brought conservatives to the White House on Thursday to make the case to Trump himself.
Kushner’s commitment to this issue seems personal. Having watched his father, Charles Kushner, sentenced to prison, he is likely to have an intimate understanding of how brutal and dehumanizing the criminal justice system can be. Kushner’s Office of American Innovation is tasked with bringing “new thinking and real change” to some of America’s most pressing challenges. There is no shortage of innovative ideas when it comes to fixing our criminal justice system.
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of these efforts. The Trump administration zig-zags famously and seems to be at war with itself on this issue. But there’s also some room for hope. Evidence-based policies to reduce prison time while boosting public safety have been championed by leading conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation.
The question is how far Kushner can or will go. Some issues like mental health care, prison conditions and re-entry won’t run afoul of Sessions’ hard line. But real sentencing reform might create a showdown inside the administration and within the Republican caucus during what’s shaping up to be a heated midterm election year.
Reformers on both sides have some reason to be optimistic. The present disaster that is America’s criminal justice system offends the highest values and deepest values of both political parties. Our criminal justice system has grown so out of control that an estimated 70 million Americans have a criminal record – meaning virtually every American has a friend, neighbor or loved one who’s been impacted. And according to a poll by the Charles Koch Institute, even 54% of Trump voters know someone who is or has been incarcerated.
One area that is bringing all sides together is a campaign led by #cut50 to provide better treatment of women behind bars, thereby reducing the harmful consequences of incarceration on women, children and families.
Another area where there is agreement is better support and economic opportunity for individuals returning to their communities after incarceration. Both parties agree that public safety is best served when people leaving prison have meaningful opportunities to obtain housing, employment and education.
An administration that on the one hand wants to roll back progress on medical marijuana can’t be fully trusted to handle the issue of justice reform optimally. But the American people are tired of the Washington, DC food fight and are looking for leadership. And for the millions of people behind bars and their families, any light in the darkness should be encouraged.