Commentary: Our Chance to Fix America’s Prison System

Van Jones wants criminal reform to happen. Today.

America’s criminal justice system is badly broken.

If we want things to change, we must take action. We have a monumental opportunity — right now, this year.

In a time of deep divisiveness in American politics, Democrats and Republicans are actually working together to try to solve this problem.

Recently, U.S. Representative Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and U.S. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) introduced the most comprehensive criminal justice reform legislation in history: The Safe, Accountable, Fair, Effective (SAFE) Justice Act of 2015.

We must act now to get it passed through Congress and onto President Obama’s desk. Our leaders in D.C. and all around the country need to hear from us.

This is why #cut50 has launched a new campaign, #JusticeReformNOW to push Congress to move beyond talking and toward real action. You can join by signing the petition today.

We can win real change this year. But it will take all that we have. After all, we have a profoundly broken system.

1.    It’s brutal and inhumane. Just ask Shaka Senghor, who spent 19 years locked up — seven of them in solitary confinement. Today, Shaka is a father, a professor, MIT Media Lab Fellow, author and mentor who speaks openly about his transformation and journey to redemption.

2.    It tears families apart. Just ask Jessica Jackson, who was left alone to support her tiny two month-old baby when her husband was sentenced to six years for a non-violent drug-related offense. Jessica’s experience propelled her to become a first-generation college student and go on to law school so she could advocate for others.  

3.    It funnels people of color into prisons — and traps them there. Just ask Crystallee Crain, who grew up as the only member of her immediate family without a felony. Her childhood was fatherless. She got to know the inside of prison waiting rooms at an early age. She’s been living with the stigma of having a parent behind bars. Visiting prisons and regularly hearing of other family members who were touched by the system left a mark on her. She has turned her experiences into a career as an advocate, professor and a violence prevention trainer.

Today, Jessica, Shaka and Crystallee are leading the fight to reform our criminal justice system. I’m proud to work alongside them at #cut50, the organization I founded with the goal of slashing America’s prison population by 50 percent over the next decade.  

This is no small task. American prisons are bloated with the largest number of incarcerated men and women on the planet. We have 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, even though we only make up 5 percent of the global population. One out of every 100 Americans is behind bars. That’s more than 2 million people.

We’re economically addicted to mass incarceration. The U.S. pours $80 billion yearly into prisons. With that money, we could fund college tuition for almost 16 million students annually. But as it is, in many neighborhoods, young people of color are more likely to go to prison than college.

Justice in this country is no longer about criminals or public safety. It’s about criminalizing everyday Americans. Instead of protecting us, the broken justice system targets and traps us, especially if we’re poor, Black, Latino or have a criminal record — even a minor one. Over 70 million Americans have a criminal record. This readily translates into employment discrimination, disenfranchisement and the denial of public assistance like housing and student loans.

Children, women, men — entire communities — are getting locked up and locked into a system that doesn’t offer alternatives, rehabilitation, or an easy way out.

Over the past 40 years, we have seen an unprecedented explosion in incarceration. Nationwide, this was the result of bad politics and failed policies championed by both Democrats and Republicans. It’s about time we come together to transform the system — and the millions of lives it destroys.

Nothing I’m saying is new. What is new is that we finally have a real chance to do something about it.

It’s time to speak up, speak out and take action. We can end America’s addiction to incarceration. We can prevent millions of people from going through what Shaka, Jessica and Crystallee experienced.

Please sign the petition today.

Together, we can make this a country — at long last — that truly stands for liberty and justice for all.

Van Jones is the founder of Cut50, a bipartisan Dream Corps initiative that aims to safely and smartly cut America's prison population in half over the next decade. Van works as a political commentator for CNN, and also served as President Obama's green jobs advisor in 2009. 

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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