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Originally published in the Marin Independent Journal

Many Americans listening to President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night might have been surprised to hear the president say there is an issue on which he believes Democrats and Republicans can work together in 2016: reform of the criminal justice system.

But a bipartisan interest in reshaping the justice system comes as no surprise to Jessica Jackson Sloan, a human rights attorney elected to the Mill Valley City Council in 2013. Sloan, 33, serves as the national director of #cut50, a national bipartisan initiative launched last year to safely cut the nation’s incarcerated population by 50 percent over the next 10 years.

As President Obama noted in a speech to the NAACP’s annual convention last year, the United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, some 2.2 million people. The nation’s incarceration rate is four times higher than China’s.

And #cut50’s website also points out that 70 million Americans have a criminal record, the U.S. spends $80 billion a year on incarceration, and people of color are disproportionately imprisoned.

For Sloan, the issue isn’t academic

“I had my own personal experience with the criminal justice system, which propelled me to go to college and then law school,” Sloan said.

Sloan was 21, the mother of a newborn baby, when her first husband, now ex-husband, was arrested on suspicion of possessing of methamphetamine and stolen tools.

“We met the public defender that had him plead to six years literally five minutes before the trial,” Sloan said. “It was just shabby lawyering. He didn’t have any record before that. What he really needed was rehabilitation.

“At the time I had nothing but my GED and a 2-month-old baby,” she said. 

DEATH ROW APPEALS 

Sloan eventually returned to California, where she earned her law degree at Santa Clara University School of Law in 2012 and began working at the Habeas Corpus Resource Center in San Francisco representing California death row inmates in their appeals.

“I was enjoying what I was doing but feeling like I needed to do more,” she said.

The #cut50 initiative is the brainchild of Sloan; Van Jones, a CNN political commentator and former green jobs adviser to President Obama; and Matt Haney, a member of the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education. Sloan met Jones when he served as the keynote speaker for a Marin Democratic Party fundraiser, and they began discussing her passion for reforming criminal justice laws at both the state and national levels.

ALLIES ON RIGHT

Next, Jones, who had worked on criminal justice issues earlier in his career, brought the topic up with Newt Gingrich, his co-star at the time on CrossFire. Jones was surprised to discover that Gingrich shared his view that criminal justice reform is needed. From there, the idea for #cut50 took flight with a bipartisan summit in Washington, D.C., last March.

“We ended up having over 800 attendees, 84 speakers, 10 of them being members of Congress, three GOP governors, then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder came and spoke, and Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez spoke,” Sloan said. And President Obama made his presence felt by sending a video message of support. 

Jones said, “All of that was her brainchild and her work. Jessica was one of the people who very early on saw that there was an opportunity to bring both sides together and used her great skill ... to make it happen.”

Sloan said perhaps the biggest surprise came when Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries, jumped on the bandwagon. Koch Industries is infamous among liberal activists for its funding of conservative candidates and causes.

“They have a very narrow agenda in terms of what they want to accomplish in reform,” Sloan said. “But it is stuff we agree on for the most part so they have been a good ally.”

ACTION IN CONGRESS 

About a week after the summit, U.S. Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, and Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, introduced the SAFE Justice Act, which Jackson said is still percolating in the House of Representatives. This sweeping legislation would reform the criminal justice system in a number of ways. It would promote greater use of probation for low-level offenders; address prisoners’ mental health and drug issues; seek to reduce recidivism by supporting reentry of the incarcerated back into society; and limit mandatory minimum sentencing to drug kingpins.

In addition to this bill, #cut50 is advocating for the Senate’s Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act — and companion legislation in the House, the Sentencing Reform Act — which would reform federal prison sentencing and increase support for rehabilitation programs.

Jones said one reason for optimism is that Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives, has said he thinks criminal justice reform is something that can be achieved this year.

Jones added, “Whatever chances we have for the legislation, they are exponentially greater because of Jessica Jackson Sloan’s advocacy.”

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