This Millennial Activist Believes Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform Will Happen, Even Under Trump

by Jon Hecht
Jessica Jackson Sloan

A few years ago, it looked like the Republican party was starting to change its tune on criminal justice. After groups like Black Lives Matter brought the issue of policing into the mainstream, and the Obama administration set its sight on lowering incarceration rates, the GOP, once the party of tough-on-crime policies, was looking for ways to change that. Groups like Right On Crime sprouted up, bolstered by support from such high profile names on the right as the Koch brothers, and even Newt Gingrich, who once wrote about the need for tougher laws. Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz all entered the 2016 Republican primary with goals of reforming mandatory minimum sentencing laws and lowering incarceration rates.

But none of those Republicans who supported reform won.

Instead, Donald Trump did, and he did it, according to his critics, by playing on fears about crime, especially by immigrants. He attacked President Obama's commutations of nonviolent offenders, and he echoed Richard Nixon in calling himself "the law and order candidate" during a speech at the Republican National Convention.

But Jessica Jackson Sloan, a human rights attorney who co-founded and serves as National Director for #Cut50, a criminal justice reform advocacy group, doesn't see it that way.

Jessica Jackson Sloan

"There are the people whose minds are still stuck in the 1980s and 1990s, and their tough on crime policies that clearly do not work," Sloan, who also serves on the Mill Valley City Council in California and is the youngest elected official in Marin County history, tells Bustle. "And then there are those folks that have shifted from tough on crime to smart on crime. Because they have identified that the current tough on crime is actually making our communities less safe."

Sloan and #Cut50 have still focused on rallying conservative allies in trying to reform state criminal justice procedures — and there has been real success in that realm. Sloan points to examples, like Georgia's (Republican) governor Nathan Deal, who spearheaded reforms aimed at lowering the state's incarceration rate, a recently passed bill in New York raising the age teenagers can be tried as juveniles that got bipartisan support, and efforts backed by Republican elder statesmen Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist to end mandatory minimums in Nebraska.

Jessica Jackson Sloan

For Sloan, these kinds of policies are not just political, they're personal. She got involved in trying to reform the criminal justice system after her own family got trapped in it. At age 22, her then-husband got arrested and convicted on a drug charge. Sloan says she had hoped that his time in prison could lead to something good.

"I was relieved. I thought he would get the same treatment that everybody I knew who did drugs had — he would be sent to rehab. He would get help. He would get support," she says. "Instead, he was thrown in a cage for three and a half years, and I was told that the only way he could get that kind of support was a 15-minute phone call that was going to cost us $21."

Since then, Sloan has dedicated her life to fixing the criminal justice system, and the fight still brings back memories of how badly it went for her.

She shares a story of speaking at a conference on drug courts. Many jurisdictions have started to use drug courts in lieu of the normal court system, allowing judges to tailor sentences for drug crimes towards helping addicts and their families with rehabilitation, not just punishment. Right before going up on stage for the opening panel, she got choked up, thinking about how different her life could have been if her then-husband had been able to go through drug court, where their needs could have been addressed.

"The people who show up at those rallies, the people who were saying 'lock her up,' and Trump supporters — those are many of the same people who are ending up incarcerated over very minor offenses."

"That moment hit me very hard," she says. "I got up there, and I was pretty choked up. I had a hard time getting through my remarks, because it dawned on me that had we had those specialty courts that had really addressed the underlying problem and kept him from even going to prison in the first place, my daughter would have grown up with her father there."

Jessica Jackson Sloan

It's this kind of emotion that gives Sloan hope for a change from the people who elected Trump, even if she isn't hopeful about policy coming from the White House itself. "The people who show up at those rallies, the people who were saying 'lock her up,' and Trump supporters — those are many of the same people who are ending up incarcerated over very minor offenses," sloan says.

Sloan believes the biggest problem is clearing up the misconceptions people have about what criminal just reform actually involves. "Criminal justice reform does not mean we're going to open the doors and let a whole bunch of violent people out to commit crimes in your community," Sloan says. "What it means is we're going to switch our approach because this approach is not working. This approach is catching people up in the system who are good people who made a bad decision. And instead of getting the help they need to get their lives back on track, it's actually destroying their lives further."