The Lead

CNN’s Van Jones on what unifies America: ‘We have to fix the probation system’

By: - September 29, 2019 7:12 am

Advocates for probation reform gather in the Capitol rotunda (Capital-Star photo).

Van Jones spends a lot of time on CNN talking about the many ways that America is divided.

But in one area, he sees unity: criminal justice reform.

Jones is the CEO of the REFORM Alliance, an organization born out of Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill’s long struggle with probation and reincarceration.

During a Tuesday event in the Capitol, Jones joined with more than 100 activists affiliated with REFORM and the D.C.-based Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) to explain how the probation system is broken and call on lawmakers to fix it.

“We’re in a moment of national indecision on everything,” Jones, the host of an eponymous CNN show, told the Capital-Star.

But on Tuesday, “people of both political parties, all racial backgrounds, and all parts of the state” came together “to say we have to fix the probation system,” he said.

In the Legislature, bills in both the House and Senate would change how long people can be on probation: five years for felonies and three years for misdemeanors. (Mill was originally sentenced to two years in a county prison followed by eight years of probation.)

The legislation would also change the process and length of time a person can be sent back to prison for a technical violation — which isn’t a new crime, but rather failing to meet a condition like showing up for an appointment.

“The heartbreak of the probation system is that you have people who are desperately trying to be good moms, be good dads, get in the workforce, stay in the workforce,” Jones said, “and they are put in a system where there are so many catch-22s that they are failing.”

At Tuesday’s rally, people who had served probation terms spoke about being threatened with more prison time because they couldn’t find a doctor who took their insurance or afford the monthly restitution fees. A woman named Jozie said she was unable to develop a strong relationship with her children.

“I think if there was a cap on probation it would stop impacting us women and our children, and allow us to have healthy relationships and stop questioning ourselves and our self-worth,” she said in the Capitol rotunda.

In Pennsylvania, probation reform is an issue that’s bringing together Democrats and Republicans. Both bills have bipartisan co-sponsors: Reps. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, and Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, in the House; and Sens. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, and Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, in the upper chamber.

Jones, who was former President Barack Obama’s green jobs czar, faced backlash after praising President Donald Trump for endorsing a bill that exempted more people from mandatory minimum sentences. He also appeared at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year and praised conservatives for moving on the issue.

“Having President Trump be such a strong champion has kept the door open for the party to cooperate,” Jones said.

Groups that usually find themselves on opposite sides of an issue are united on this one. That includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity.

That doesn’t mean probation reform is going to sail through Pennsylvania’s General Assembly.

Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, chair of the chamber’s Judiciary Committee, said she would not move forward with the reforms until she holds a hearing on recent homicides allegedly committed by people on parole, WESA-FM in Pittsburgh reported.

Jones met with Baker on Tuesday and said she is “open to good solutions.”

Jessica Jackson, chief advocacy officer for the REFORM Alliance, also noted that probation and parole are different systems. Probation is court-ordered, while parole is overseen by a board chaired by the lieutenant governor.

“We’re talking about people who are not committing new crimes,” she said. “We’re talking about people who have otherwise gotten their lives back together.”

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Sarah Anne Hughes
Sarah Anne Hughes

Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.