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When justice calls for help: Spotlight on Jessica Sloan

By Joanne Williams in The Pacific Sun

Sometimes calls for justice move from the streets to the internet—and with luck, to Capitol Hill.

The criminal justice reform organization #cut50 is proof of that. When Mill Valley Vice Mayor Jessica Sloan met Democratic activist Van Jones at a Marin Democrats dinner, they merged ideas and energy to co-found #cut50 (cut50.org), a nationwide effort to reduce the prison population.

Sloan, a human rights attorney, is passionate about the issue for personal reasons. At 22, she saw her (now former) husband go to prison for a nonviolent crime. “He had an addiction,” says Sloan, now 34. “We had a small baby and the system ripped our family apart without making the situation any better. When I visited him I was appalled to discover that they were not providing any counseling or treatment so he could recover from his drug issues. Nor did they help prepare him to reenter society three and a half years later.” That’s when Sloan began to raise awareness of prison policy.

“Van and I founded #cut50.org, to raise the issue of mass incarceration in the public through the media and to bring together people on both sides of the aisle to find solutions to crime that not only decrease our prisons but make our communities safer.

“As a result of the 1990’s tough-on-crime attitude, too many people were sent to prison, for too long, with a disproportionate and highly destructive impact on poor communities and communities of color,” Sloan continued. There are now:

  • More than 70 million people living with some type of criminal record
  • 23 million people who bear the label “convicted felon”—preventing them from gaining meaningful housing, employment or education
  • 5 million children have at least one incarcerated parent
  • 2.2 million people in prisons and jails
  • $80 billion per year spent on prisons.

When they held the first-ever Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform last year, which drew participation from The White House, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, 13 members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, then-Attorney General Eric Holder, three GOP Governors and more than 800 leading advocates and formerly incarcerated people, #cut50 gained attention. The event catalyzed new unlikely partnerships and several important criminal justice bills in Congress.

Today, Oakland-based #cut50 is running four national campaigns to humanize the issue of criminal justice reform and change existing legislation. Sloan said that one of the national campaigns has led to a bipartisan federal bill, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, to release 10,000 nonviolent prisoners. The result: 5,400 will be released immediately, and the remainder will see their sentences shortened.

“We have 1.1 million supporters on change.org, over 100 celebrity endorsers including Alicia Keys and Steph Curry, and we’ve received financial help from multiple foundations and individuals including the Ford Foundation and Google.org,” Sloan emphasized.

Through its leadership in the community, bipartisan coalition and cultural influencers, #cut50 aims to create a smart and safe reduction in the number of people behind bars by 50 percent over the next 10 years.

They envision a criminal justice system that recognizes the humanity of the 2.2 million people currently behind bars in America and moves toward compassion and treatment rather than punishment and incarceration.

“With empathy, understanding and love we can build the political will needed to rectify the damage caused by the incarceration industry on individuals, families and our society,” Sloan said. “We’ve seen how effective drug treatment courts and veterans courts are because they actually address the root of the problem—not just punish behaviors. Now we need to scale those models across the board.”

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