Van Jones Talks Fighting for Justice

Almost one year after President Trump signed the FIRST STEP Act, criminal justice reform advocate Van Jones discussed next steps with activists and formerly incarcerated individuals.

Van Jones
Van Jones discussed the FIRST STEP Act during a Tuesday night event in Lisner Auditorium. (Photos: Sydney Elle Gray/GW Today)
November 04, 2019

By Briahnna Brown

When Lonnie Jones initially learned of the FIRST STEP Act, he was serving a life sentence in federal prison.

So far, he had served 20 years of his sentence for a first-time, non-violent drug offense. He said his fellow inmates either believed that nothing was going to come from the FIRST STEP Act or that everything was going to change.

Among the many provisions in the bill, the federal prison and sentencing reform bill aimed to help people in Lonnie Jones’ exact situation—those given lengthy sentences for non-violent drug offences because of mandatory minimum sentencing—but he was convinced that the FIRST STEP Act didn’t apply to him despite people telling him that it did because the appeals he previously filed had been denied.

"I got a letter from the federal [public] defender's office saying I might be eligible—I ripped it up,” Lonnie Jones said. “God’s honest truth, I ripped it up."

It wasn’t until a lawyer contacted him directly and explained how the act does impact him that he started to believe it, and when he got a new court date, he started to feel some joy. Once a judge ruled that the life sentence he was given was excessive for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense, he said he began to understand why the other people in prison were so “jubilant” at the news of the FIRST STEP Act being signed into law.

Lonnie Jones is one of thousands of people freed from federal custody because of the FIRST STEP Act. He shared his story on Tuesday night during a panel moderated by CNN commentator and criminal justice reform advocate Van Jones at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium.

Van Jones co-founded #cut50, a bipartisan initiative to reduce prison populations and impact criminal justice reform legislation. Along with the National Urban League and other organizations advocating for reform, #cut50 was behind getting the FIRST STEP Act passed in Congress and then signed by President Donald Trump.

Van Jones

From left, Van Jones, Pamela Winn, Lonnie Jones, Louis Reed and Jessica Jackson discuss working on the FIRST STEP Act and the impact it's had since it was passed.

When working to get Mr. Trump’s support on the bill, Van Jones said he experienced criticism for engaging with someone who is “so awful on so many issues.” Above all else, Van Jones said he was afraid that the tiny progress advocates made under President Barack Obama would be ruined under Mr. Trump, and that he could not allow criminal justice reform to fall through the cracks.

"We were staring down the barrel of a new wave of mass incarceration against poor people, against people of color, and I would do anything to stop that," Van Jones said.

The only way to make progress on the issue was to engage with political leaders such as Mr. Trump who had different views from his own and unite both sides over a problem that needed to be solved.

"In the abstract I understand [the criticism], but in the concrete particulars of what it takes to actually create real world blocks of sometimes have to do things that the liberal conventional wisdom is not ready for, won't appreciate and will reject," Van Jones said.

The FIRST STEP Act was signed into law last December and included provisions that allowed people to be incarcerated closer to their families, expanded compassionate release for individuals as young as 60, and created educational and job-training opportunities for incarcerated individuals. The next steps for criminal justice reform legislation will emphasize the need for resources for those who are released and are re-entering society, Van Jones said.

Another provision of the FIRST STEP Act emphasized dignity for incarcerated women, which was inspired by the work of Pamela Winn, a panelist during Tuesday night’s event.

Ms. Winn was pregnant when she was sentenced to 78 months in federal prison for a white-collar crime—making some “bad business decisions,” she said. While in custody, she said, she fell when she was shackled during transportation. In urgent need of medical care, Ms. Winn said she was turned away after months of back-and-forth waiting for approvals to see the appropriate doctors because the necessary equipment was unavailable at the men’s facility where she was housed. She ultimately miscarried after never receiving treatment, she said, and by the time she was released she was told that there was nothing she could do.

That inspired Ms. Winn to fight, and a petition caught the attention of Democratic Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, who invited her to Washington, D.C., to meet and discuss potential legislation. While nothing immediately happened from those meetings, #cut50 learned about Ms. Winn’s work and asked if she would help incorporate the issue that she was fighting for into the FIRST STEP Act.

Now pregnant women cannot be shackled while in federal custody, and the federal Bureau of Prisons must provide women inmates sanitary napkins and tampons at no charge.

"For those women that I left behind, I was so happy to be able to give them something to know that nobody else would have to experience what I did," Ms. Winn said.

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