“Timing is everything,” CNN host and author Van Jones told a room full of law enforcement officials, gathered in San Francisco on Monday for the announcement of a new initiative that hopes to drastically shrink the number of Americans under the supervision of probation or parole.
In recent years, the number of people on adult parole or probation in the U.S. has mushroomed to 4.5 million, twice the number of Americans who are incarcerated in state and federal prisons and local jails. According to research, those two systems — originally imagined as alternatives to imprisonment — are now heavy drivers of incarceration. Technical parole and probation violations account for about a quarter of state prison admissions, according to the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
New data points like these have helped drive attention to probation and parole reform efforts, but just as important have been efforts like the Jones-helmed Reform Alliance. Launched earlier this year, the initiative has gathered high-octane moguls from the worlds of sports, entertainment and philanthropy to educate the public. The roster of luminaries involved in the initiative now includes Jay-Z, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Philadelphia 76ers partner Michael Rubin and rapper Meek Mill, among others.
On Monday, Jones addressed another group poised to create reform in the probation and parole space. EXiT: Executives Transforming Probation and Parole, a partnership led by the Columbia Justice Lab, brought together more than 50 current and former probation and parole chiefs from around the country with the goal of shrinking the punitive impact of supervision and creating better opportunities for community rehabilitation.
Jones said “smarter rules and better tools” can help probation and parole agencies to prevent the terrible human toll of unnecessary probation and parole violations. Said Jones:
“Someone comes home from prison and gets a job — that’s very hard to do. Get an apartment — very hard to do. Get their kids back out of foster care — very hard to do. And then for something that may or may not make a lot of sense, they go back to prison for three months or six months? That job is gone, that apartment is gone, those kids are gone.”
After the event, Jones talked to The Chronicle of Social Change about what probation and parole reform could mean for criminal justice reform and why the country needs more criminal justice reform proposals from Republicans.
What can the probation and parole reform movement learn from other corners of criminal justice reform movement?
Right now, we have a rare opportunity where the economy is pretty strong, crime is relatively low, and both parties are interested in reform. That’s a trifecta that we’ve got to move on very aggressively. It turns out that in the overall criminal justice discussion, when two-thirds of the people are not in jail, not in prison, they’re on probation or parole you have a tremendous opportunity to get something positive done. We’re finding that on both sides of the aisle, in states like Pennsylvania and Georgia, there’s interest.
It’s a case of smarter rules and better tools, that’s the way I would say it. You need smarter rules. When you have a ridiculously long list of impossible-to-comply-with rules, it’s hard to enforce them fairly and when you enforce them fairly you have negative outcomes because you’re sending them back to prison, people who probably shouldn’t go back to prison.
You also need better tools. These men and women are using the most antiquated technology or no technology — just paper and pencils to track human lives, human liberty and freedom. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. With better tools and better rules, you’re going to have a lot better outcomes.
How can this effort benefit from the experiences of people with direct experience of the system, those who have experienced community supervision?
Everybody I talked to who’s been on community supervision can tell you about one person who really, really helped them who was a probation officer or parole officer and the one person who really screwed them up. Having that balanced view of what does make a positive difference and what does not has got to be central to what we do.
You are a longtime Bay Area guy — you co-founded the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights back in 1996. What does San Francisco’s decision to close its last remaining juvenile hall mean for criminal justice reform?
The jury is still out on how well it will work. The Bay Area should lead on this. Unfortunately, I don’t want to acknowledge this, but California also led the way in the wrong direction in the 1990s with three strikes and you’re out and building 20 prisons and only one university over the course of a generation. It’s appropriate for California to lead the way back toward something better now.
This past weekend, Bernie Sanders released his wish list for criminal justice reform. What do you make of his ideas and what does this mean for the role of criminal justice reform in the 2020 presidential race?
I have not read Bernie’s proposal in depth and I don’t want to comment on his proposal yet. I do want to say. It’s exciting to see both political parties putting forward reform ideas and nobody attacking them for trying. In other words, if somebody puts forward a proposal on gun control or abortion or immigration or climate change, it immediately becomes a partisan food fight before you read the first words.
You’re at least in a world now where it’s not like Bernie came out with a proposal and Trump came out and said, ‘You’re for open prisons, I hate you.” There’s actually space for us to have an intelligent conversation on this for the first time in my adult life.
There’s no such thing as one sick twin. If you have a set of twins, one gets sick, [then] they both get sick. You’re not going to have only one political party that’s healthy on criminal justice reform. We’ll both be healthy or we’ll both be sick.
We’ve had 30 years of both parties being sick, being mass incarceration parties. The Democratic party did not have a criminal justice plank in their platform until 2016. In 2008 and 2012, with Obama, there was no criminal justice plank. It’s new to even have the Democrats as a national party be in favor of criminal justice reform and we want to make the Republicans keep moving in this direction so both parties stay healthy.