With Pa. House vote looming, CNN’s Van Jones appears in Philly to call for criminal justice reform

CNN personality Van Jones during an appearance in Philadelphia on Friday, 12/13/19 (Photo via The Philadelphia Tribune)

(*This story has been updated to reflect changes in the legislation now before the state House)

By Ayana Jones

PHILADELPHIA — Because of the Urban League, “a miracle is happening in the United States of America on the most pervasive issue holding back our progress,” CNN political contributor Jones said during an appearance at the Urban League of Philadelphia’s annual Whitney M. Young Jr. Empowerment Luncheon last week.

All of the current presidential candidates are willing to discuss and address criminal justice reform.

Jones said that has never happened before.

Jones, one of the founders and CEO of the REFORM Alliance, said there are more African Americans locked up today than there were enslaved in the 1800s. He noted that 2.3 million African Americans are currently incarcerated, while another 4.5 million are on probation and parole.

Pennsylvania has the second-highest percentage of residents on probation or parole in the country.

“In Pennsylvania, the majority of people who went to prison this year have committed no new crime at all,” stated Jones, who is the CEO of REFORM Alliance.

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“They were on probation and parole and they had a technical violation.”

He gave an example of technical violations such as showing up late for a meeting with a probation officer which could cause someone on parole to be imprisoned for three months.

“We need to stop messing up people’s lives,” Jones said.

Jones credited the National Urban League with helping bringing attention to the problem and getting political leaders to address it.

He also encouraged event attendees to support House Bill 1555, known as the Smart Probation and Parole Act, aimed at reforming Pennsylvania’s probation and parole system to reduce recidivism.

The Republican-controlled chamber could vote as soon as this week on the bill, which was amended in the House Judiciary Committee last week, where reform advocates argued that some of its key provisions were weakened.

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*In its prior form, the legislation would have prevented the court from sentencing a person to consecutive sentences of probation, and extending probation or parole due solely to nonpayment of fines and costs.

“It is unacceptable that 296,000 individuals are either on parole or probation in this state,” said Andrea Custis, the Urban League of Philadelphia’s president and CEO.

“When you look throughout the United States of America, we are at the very bottom for our system on probation and parole. It is dysfunctional and it needs reform.”

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During the luncheon, the ULP presented James F. Dever Jr., market president of Bank of America with its Business Leader Award; TD Bank with its Community Leader Award and Comcast NBCUniversal with its Corporate Diversity and Inclusion Award.

The organization’s decision to honor Comcast NBC Universal with its 2019 Corporate Diversity and Inclusion Award raised garnered some criticism in light of African-American media mogul Byron Allen’s $20 billion lawsuit against the company.

Allen alleges Comcast discriminated against him in its refusal to carry cable channels owned by his company. Both sides are currently awaiting a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court. A victory for Comcast could make it harder for victims of discrimination to prove so, by forcing them to prove that racial discrimination was the only factor in any disputed contracting decision.

The NUL and ULP issued a joint statement to The Tribune.

“Neither the Urban League or the National Urban League has taken a position on the merits of Byron Allen’s lawsuit against Comcast,” the statement said.

“National Urban League, in partnership with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, filed a friend of the court brief urging the Supreme Court to affirm the lower court’s ruling that intentional race discrimination claims under Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 are viable if the plaintiff is able to show that race played a role in the challenged discriminatory decision.”

Ayana Jones is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.