For activist Jessica Jackson Sloan, the perils of mass incarceration didn’t come knocking on her door until her former husband landed behind bars on July 24, 2004. As she sat in a courtroom with her then two-month-old baby girl, Jackson’s previous spouse’s incarceration—which stemmed from a non-violent misdeed—led her down a path of helping others who’ve fallen into the depths of the criminal justice system.
“This was the first time I had ever heard of somebody going to prison and to be sentenced to 15, serve six. It was a plea deal that he worked out but the judge was pretty coercive in how he framed things,” Sloan says. “It was very scary. I was literally standing there holding our daughter, expecting him to come home with us that day in particular. I thought the most he would get would be probation or community service.”
Once that moment settled in, Sloan decided to hop aboard the legal train and enroll in law school to become a public defender, then represented death row inmates to now being one of the leaders of the national organization, #cut50, co-founded alongside Van Jones and Matt Haney.
— Jessica J. Sloan (@JessyMichele) March 13, 2017
The organization’s mission is to effectively decrease the incarceration rate by implementing services that cut a person’s turnaround probability through bipartisan efforts.
In this informative and reflective Q&A, #cut50’s national director dissects the billion-dollar machine that is mass incarceration, Meek Mill’s probation violation case, and what the prison system looks like under Donald Trump’s presidency.
VIBE: You represented death row inmates in their appeals before making the switch to #cut50. How do you apply that experience to your work now?
Jessica Jackson Sloan: I think it gives me a different perspective and I’ve worked at the public defender’s office as well when I was in law school. I think when it happens to you, you have one perspective. When you’re in charge of representing other people, you see the system differently. You see a lot more deep bias within the system. You see a lot of the legal aspects, what justice is supposed to be and then what’s actually happening in reality on the ground. Then when I ran for office I ended up getting a different perspective, and that was one of public safety, being mayor of a town and having to worry about things like keeping crime rates low, implementing policies that would deter crime and prevent it. I think I’ve gotten a lot of different perspectives on this issue but definitely standing next to somebody in a courtroom or writing briefs on their behalf, getting to know them, feeling that enormous weight of responsibility, and being the representation that stands between somebody living or dying, literally, that’s something I’ll always carry with me through this work.
In 2015, you became the mayor of Mill Valley in California. What did the prison or criminal justice system look like on that level?
It’s a common misnomer that criminal justice is something done on the state or federal level. It’s really done on the streets; it’s what’s happening in communities across the country. To me, the most powerful tool that we have to initiate reforms starting on the local levels and to make sure that everything that we’re doing with state and federal policy is translating local needs into policies. As mayor, we’ve worked on a lot of different things, whether it’s providing people an opportunity to do community service instead of getting fines and fees, looking through the codes, mayors and local elected officials can look through their own municipal codes and find areas where you might be able to create a tool for a police officer to go through an administrative process as opposed to issuing somebody a misdemeanor and arresting them. For example, we have a social host ordinance in Mill Valley. If a police officer comes up to a house in Mill Valley and they find out there’s a young person in there drinking, in a lot of towns they have to take that person to jail or prison, or to jail for a minor in concession or under the age drinking and take whoever is in there who provided the alcohol to jail as well for contributing to delinquency as a minor. Now in Mill Valley, they don’t have to do that. They can issue an administrative citation. It doesn’t give anybody a record, instead it gives them an opportunity to either pay a fee or do community service that hopefully they’ll learn from the experience and it’ll open their eyes, but without giving them any punitive responses like incarceration that can just end up having collateral consequences that last for the rest of their lives.
In a Forbes profile, the journalist said not only did you take a risk by going back to school to get your GED then your law degree instead of finding a more comfortable or automatic job, but you took another risk by joining the fight against mass incarceration. Is there a risk in joining the cause and doing the work necessary to visibly enact prison reform?
There’s always a risk when you leave a steady state job and step into the nonprofit world. The funding is always precarious. You have to rely on charity and the goodwill of people or foundations. I’ve never felt like it was a risk not worth taking. This is something I believe very passionate in and as an attorney I did gain a very valuable perspective as to how the system is stacked against people. But now being with #cut50, it gives me an opportunity to do a lot more than just represent one person at a time. It’s given me an opportunity to enact systemic change and to really push this issue into the national conversation in a way that people understand why it’s so important to have criminal justice reform and really understand the impact that our current criminal justice system is having and how it’s making our communities less safe.
What does #cut50 represent?
#cut50 represents the idea that we can cut the prison population and crime in 50 percent in the next 10 years by, instead of employing tough on crime policies, employing smart safety solutions. I co-founded #cut50 with Van Jones and Matt Haney. I chose to come on board because I believe it’s time for transformative change as opposed to just incremental change, and I really wanted to reduce the stigma. When it was my husband who was incarcerated, I didn’t tell anybody. I was so ashamed and embarrassed that I didn’t want anybody to know. I thought that they would judge me or think less of me. So one of our goals with humanization is to recognize the fact that this is a hard topic for people to talk about. There’s so much stigma around it. We want to remove that burden of stigma and allow the 60, 70 million people with criminal convictions and their loved ones to talk freely about their experiences and raise awareness of what’s not currently working in our system.
Recently, you tweeted a poster that states 61,000 people are jailed for minor parole violations. How does #cut50 work to help those affected by this?
I’m glad you asked. The theory of change that #cut50 uses has been extremely successful with is humanization and legislation. Humanization; we’re telling stories of those who’ve been directly impacted and more importantly we’re empowering those who’ve been directly impacted to share their own stories. Legislation; we work from this local-up perspective with local stakeholders to translate the needs of the local communities into state, federal, criminal justice policy. We’ve been successful doing this with fines and fees in California. We’ve funded bills around youth justice, we’ve been able on the federal level to tear down some of the barriers to treatment through the 21st Century Cures Act as well as our work on opioid reform.
Now we are working on several campaigns. One of them being Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act which is federal policy and now we’re spawning that out into the state policy as well, that fields with conditions of confinement for women. Our newest campaign is #StillNotFree. That is a campaign led by Shaka Senghor and Michael Mendoza who are on our staff. Both have been previously incarcerated and then on parole and probation. That deals with raising awareness of the clerical consequences and challenges of being on parole or probation through the #StillNotFree storytelling campaign. We’ve encouraged people to talk about their probation experiences, their violations, and raise awareness. We’re also bringing legislation in three states next year that will help people who are on parole or probation earn their way to come off of parole and probation and decrease some of those technical violations as well as some of the restrictions that they face being on parole or probation.
There’s an app called Appolition that donates spare change to a bail fund which helps those who are incarcerated get a chance to fight their case outside of a jail or prison cell. Do you think these types of innovations can change the narrative of unjustified jail sentences?
Absolutely. Too often we rely on policy to be the way to lead us out. We at #cut50 work with a very unlikely group of allies. Our Day of Empathy last year was sponsored by Google, which doesn’t have a stake in the game. They’re not a policy institution of any sorts, but they wanted to get involved and fight as well. Tech solutions are out there. It sounds like this app and other apps are showing us there are better ways to do things. We need to be thinking outside of the box in order to transform the entire system.
Remy Ma, who also had a stint in prison, recently spoke with the Breakfast Club about the perils of the system. She said that when you’re released, there’s something called post-release provision where there might be a curfew in place, but it’s not necessarily parole or probation. Can you speak to that side of the criminal justice system?
I’ve heard about it and it does happen in some states. Normally, it’s called post-release community supervision. I think it was governed or supervised by the state parole. People who don’t have probational parole—sometimes as an element of letting them out—are put on this post-release community supervision. In California, this came into play with the realignment efforts that they had where they were moving jurisdiction of folks from prisons into jails. Some of them who were coming out weren’t put on parole or probation, instead they were put on post-release community supervision where they’re still supervised, but their supervision is not quite as stringent as parole and probation.
To keep in line with other artists who’ve fallen into the criminal justice system, #cut50 has been a longtime supporter of Meek Mill. There’s been a rally and public statements of those who support him and then there are others who say “wrong is wrong.” Why should readers care about this case?
His case is symbolic of injustice that’s happening across the country. His particular case is an incredible example of a bias judge. You have a judge who’s been making incredibly inappropriate requests. She called him and his girlfriend Nicki Minaj into chambers, asking to record a song that she liked, “On Bended Knee” by Boyz II Men. She asked him to give her a shoutout in the middle of the song. He’s said, ‘That’s not my genre,’ and she said, ‘Alright, suit yourself.’ Next thing we know, he ends up with a technical violation and being sentenced two to four years in prison for seeking addiction help to get off of opioids, and for popping a wheelie to entertain some kids—a case in which all charges were dropped—and for traveling which was a trip he had asked permission to go on.
It’s pretty clear that the judge who ignored the advice of the district attorney, ignored the advice of the probation officer in the courtroom, both of whom did not want Meek Mill going back to prison, it’s pretty clear she’s biased in bringing some of her personal bias into a case that’s affecting her ability to make a decent ruling. This case is just symbolic of the impropriety of our justice system and because Meek is a public figure and has been an incredible community leader and youth mentor and artist and such an inspiration to so many, I think people see his case as a sign of hope that something will change. That people will finally realize how rigged the system is and how unfair it is and want to do something about it.
The probation officer and D.A. called for no jail time over the two cases that were dismissed. Is there something within the law that still allows the judge to sentence him?
Judicial discretion being what it is, judges have the ability to make these kinds of decisions. Unfortunately, there’s not enough oversight of our judges so something like this can happen. Hopefully, she will do the right thing and step aside. I know there’s a huge petition calling on her to recuse herself and there’s been a lot of attention on the case so I’m hoping that she does step aside, otherwise we’ll see what other legal remedies there are. There’s a lot of public pressure right now for that judge to step aside even though she might have judicial discretion. It’s pretty clear that she’s been abusing that.
“As we continue to go down this slippery slope of investing in incarceration, we’ve decreased the amount we’re investing in social services whereas we used to provide treatment for people who had mental illness or mental health problems.” ~ Jessica Jackson Sloan
#cut50 actually met Meek Mill. I was not there, but my deputy director, Alex [Gudich] was there this summer with Meek and Van Jones when they did an interview in Philadelphia. It was a phenomenal interview about his experiences with the criminal justice system. What wasn’t seen on that stage is that in the dressing room, Alex went up to Meek Mill and he showed him a video. It’s a trailer for a music program that we’re working with in San Quentin Prison. We have a Grammy-nominated producer who is actually incarcerated in the prison working on a mixtape for youth who are incarcerated there. It’s called “The YOP Mixtape.” He got to prison, he looked around and saw all of these kids, 18-24, that were there rapping on the yard, but they weren’t fitting into the prison culture because it was the first time they had been at a prison. Because of legislative changes, they were allowed to be at a minimum security prison as opposed to the maximum security levels which they would’ve been sent to had the laws not changed.
They weren’t fitting into the programming, they were getting in trouble and shipped out to these more higher level security prisons. He ended up creating this mixtape project for them to express their emotions in a healthy way through music. They’re all excited about it. David Jassy, that’s the guy who runs it. He set up some parameters and said you can’t curse, you can’t glorify violence or drugs, and you can’t disrespect women on this tape. He worked with them to create something that’s very inspirational. We had a whole trailer video that we put together of this program and Alex showed it to Meek. There were some folks in the dressing room talking and he told all of them be quiet, ‘This is the most important thing I’ve seen in a long time. We didn’t have nothing like this when I was incarcerated, we need programs like this inside those facilities!’ He watched the whole thing, he gave a shout out for the mixtape and then he said, ‘Let me know as soon as this is released, I want to push it out there, people need to be doing stuff like this. I want to work with the guys, this is an incredible program.’ Just his commitment to youth and to criminal justice and to really empowering people to tell their stories through music. I was shocked when I heard how onboard he was and how excited he was about the project. I think he has a really big heart when it comes to criminal justice reform and people who are incarcerated. In this moment, we’re really excited about pitching in and helping him because without even having to or being asked, he wanted to help us help people inside.
I understand the definition or premise of mass incarceration, but can you break down how it works?
Since the ’60s, we’ve seen politicians running on tough-on-crime policies and the way they win office is by stoking the fears of communities. When there’s a crime, they don’t talk about addressing the underlying reason why somebody committed a crime, instead they talk about locking them up and throwing away the key. The war on drugs perpetuated this. Crack came over to the U.S., and other drugs in volumes we had never seen before. Instead of talking about addiction and investing in resources to get people treatment and prevent people from getting on drugs, they just started incarcerating people who were caught with drugs. That didn’t make our communities any safer because there was still an addiction out there. There were still buyers even though you took the buyer off the street. There was still a demand and someone would quickly fill that. The 1994 Crime Bill only made things worse and increased the number of people in prisons. As we continue to go down this slippery slope of investing in incarceration, we’ve decreased the amount we’re investing in social services whereas we used to provide treatment for people who had mental illness or mental health problems. We no longer have those resources because we’re spending $80 billion a year to lock people up. Mental health and mental illness is not improving. In fact, with fewer resources we’re seeing an increase in mental health issues whether it’s depression or anxiety or even a much worse mental illness. People are also self-medicating or acting out in other ways. It’s actually made our communities less safe. What we’ve seen over the last three or four years is sort of an awareness of how our investment in incarceration has ended up making communities less safe, overall increasing crime.
It’s a really hard battle to fight because there’s so much money involved. We spend $80 billion a year on mass incarceration. That’s a lot of money that people who work in the industries that profit off of incarceration don’t want to see disappear. We’ve got companies like Aramark or Global Tel Link that are gouging people who are incarcerated and their families for money that have very powerful lobbyists. You have prison guard unions that also have powerful lobbyists. Then you have the politicians who are driving the narrative that somebody who committed a crime is a danger to society and should never be on your streets again.
“Mass incarceration is huge, but the most important thing is to make sure that the system changes so that resources get freed up so that it can be allocated into education instead of incarceration.” ~ Jessica Jackson Sloan
Unfortunately, this plays out inside the prison as well. We’ve seen a significant cut in rehabilitated programs. Instead of going into prison and actually getting the support you need to come out and get a job, get housing and kick your addiction, you’re instead coming out even more traumatized because those resources just aren’t there, those resources are going into other areas of incarceration instead of going into helping people get better so that when they come home they can be successful in society. It’s a common misnomer that somebody goes to prison and they just disappear. There’s 2.2 million people in prison but 90 percent of them are going to come home. We’re not investing in ways to bring them home in a manner that is safe for our communities or that sets them up to be successful in society.
What does mass incarceration look like under Donald Trump’s presidency? What does his presidency mean for #cut50?
I would rather focus on Attorney General [Jeff] Sessions. He appointed Sessions—a man who’s far outside of the scope of the thinking of his party when it comes to criminal justice reform. We’ve seen an incredible bipartisan movement for criminal justice reform. States like Texas have made significant cuts. Texas just closed their fourth prison. That’s 1,755 beds that they’ve gotten people out of and gotten them back onto the streets in a successful manner where crime is not going up. That was all led by red state legislators and ran by a red state governor. You look at Georgia, Gov. [Nathan] Deal, he’s taken enormous steps towards ending mass incarceration in that state and actually decreased the incarceration of African Americans in that state by 20 percent since he took office which is pretty incredible. Our bipartisan summit that we did three years ago kicked off with Van Jones, Donna Brazile, American Conservative Union and Newt Gingrich as the co-host. Donald Trump has not gotten in the way of that, but Sessions, who’s just drastically out of sync with his party, has continued to push this tough on crime policy agenda that doesn’t work. Unfortunately, he wants to drag us back into the war on drugs. I’m very thankful for our conservative friends and partners who’ve been able to push so hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“I think he has a really big heart when it comes to criminal justice reform and people who are incarcerated.” ~ Sloan on Meek Mill
What’s the most glaring issue with mass incarceration and how does #cut50 plan to combat it?
Mass incarceration is huge, but the most important thing is to make sure that the system changes so that resources get freed up so that it can be allocated into education instead of incarceration. Van has been saying since early 2000 that we need books not bars, jobs not jails. That’s what’s important, making sure people have education, employment and housing. We want to see the laws change so that people are diverted from ever going into the system in the first place so that they are actually getting the underlying resources they need to address the problems that are driving crime. We want to make sure that people who are incarcerated are treated with dignity and respect and given a real chance at rehabilitation while incarcerated, and that when they’re re-entering society, they’re not having to fight an uphill battle that’s almost impossible every single day just to get their life back on track and to be able to succeed.
#cut50 has a mission to reduce America’s incarceration rate by 50 percent by 2025. Where does that initiative stand today?
We came out of the box with that vision and there are other organizations who say half by 2030, half by 2025, but what that’s signaling is that we’re tired of this incremental change. When we opened up the doors at #cut50, we saw our colleagues across the country working extremely hard on bills that would have incremental success—lowering the rate of incarceration by two percent in this state—we really wanted to signal that we believe you can cut crime in half and cut incarceration in half within 10 years by transforming the system drastically and investing in people rather than investing in incarceration.