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WAMC News

Jones, NYUJ Push For Criminal Justice Reform In NY

Activist and CNN commentator Van Jones met with New York state lawmakers in Albany Tuesday to push for changes to state criminal law.

Jones was influential in promoting last year’s bipartisan First Step Act in Congress, which provided for the reduction of some federal prison sentences. Standing outside the state Senate lobby with leaders of New Yorkers United for Justice, Jones lamented the state’s lack of action compared to states like Texas.

“There is no reason in the world that New York state can’t be leading the country in a better direction. Washington D.C. came together last year, you had Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi supporting the same bill," Jones said. "How can Washington D.C. outperform New York?”

Jones joined NYUJ as a representative of the REFORM Alliance, which he just recently launched with Meek Mill, Jay-Z, and others. NYUJ itself is still in the development stage. Leaders Topeka Sam and Khalil Cumberbatch, both previously incarcerated, said they joined the conversation after experiencing the criminal justice system first-hand. Cumberbatch is the coalition’s chief strategist.

“After leaving prison, I did, as most people do…I believe wholeheartedly that every person that leaves jail and prison, the moment they walk out, they really don’t want to go back – but the socioeconomic conditions, the barriers, the legal barriers, kind of cause them to make decisions that are not healthy," explains Cumberbatch. "And so I didn’t want to go back to prison, and I also wanted to help people.”

While NYUJ hasn’t solidified its positions on past and current bills, it supports a wide range of changes to the criminal justice system in order to reduce incarceration. It considers pretrial reform a priority, including more timely access to counsel and the elimination of cash bail. Jones said it also supports the expungement of low-level drug offenses, like marijuana convictions.

“I went to Yale Law School, nobody can tell me anything. I saw more kids doing drugs at Yale, than I’ve ever seen in a housing project. None of them went to prison, they got rehab at worst," said Jones. "So what we’re saying is we know what to do when people get in trouble, because we do it for rich folks all the time. Rich folks get two, three, four, 400 chances – and yet somebody who has fewer means can’t get one decent break.”

Jones would like to see changes to New York’s probation and parole practices. He says strict regulations on parolees can set them up for failure, feeding recidivism.

“If somebody is on probation and parole and commits a new crime, that’s a new charge. But why are you gonna put somebody back in prison because they were 15 minutes late for a meeting?" asked Jones. "And they’re gonna lose their house, lose their job, and lose their kids back into foster care – because they were late for a meeting? That’s wrong.”

Jones, Sam, and Cumberbatch spent the day meeting with state lawmakers, including Democratic State Senators Jamaal Bailey, Brian Benjamin, and Zellnor Myrie of New York City. State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, also a Democrat, vowed action now that her party controls both chambers.    

“You should know that we intend to be introducing a series of bills sponsored by these young men and myself, to address some of the issues that have been raised by Mr. Jones today," announced Montgomery.

This was Jones’ first time meeting with New York state lawmakers on the issue, and he had a message for reporters: be sure to cover his opponents, too.

“They’re defending an indefensible status quo in the state of New York. So anybody wants to raise their hand and defend the system? Put ‘em on the record," Jones said. "Put ‘em on the record so their grandchildren can be ashamed of them.”