May 05, 2017
May 05, 2017
By Toussaint Bailey
#cut50 is a national, bipartisan initiative aimed at confronting one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time: mass incarceration. #cut50 aims to reduce our nation's prison and jail populations by 50 percent while making our communities safer, keeping families together, and building a stronger economy.
Jessica Jackson Sloan co-founded #cut50 with civil rights activist and political commentator Van Jones in November 2013. A human rights attorney who began her career representing California death row inmates in their appeals, Sloan became the youngest ever elected official in Marin County when she was elected to the Mill Valley City Council; in 2016 she became the Mayor of Mill Valley. She is National Director of #cut50.
#cut50 is working to close prison doors and open doors of opportunity. They do this through:
- Humanization – changing the narrative around crime and incarceration through projects like the San Quentin Media Lab and the National Day of Empathy.
- Legislation – pressing Congress and State Legislatures to take action. They are working in California and on bipartisan federal legislation as well as in in other states like Louisiana, New York, and Mississippi through their Empathy Network.
- Innovation – bringing together unlikely allies like Alicia Keys & Newt Gingrich, partnering with private sector companies like Dave’s Killer Bread to promote second chance hiring, and finding creative solutions to shrinking the prison population.
#cut50 was headquartered in Oakland for the past two years but they are now formally spreading roots to Marin County by opening an office at the Marin City Community Development Corporation.
What has #cut50 accomplished so far?
#cut50’s kickoff event in Washington, D.C. was humorously dubbed the “Woodstock of criminal justice reform” by MSNBC because it drew such a wide range of participants from across the political spectrum – they brought Newt Gingrich and Donna Brazile together. David Simon, creator of The Wire, was there along with then-Attorney General Eric Holder and then-Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who now chairs the DNC. President Obama even submitted a video.
They’ve continued to partner with many of those allies and have added a few high-profile spokespeople – including Alicia Keys, who worked closely with #cut50 during the last Congressional session on their #JusticeReformNow campaign. Ms. Keys joined #cut50 in calling on House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to schedule votes on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which had gone through lengthy negotiations and passed out of both judiciary committees.
Unfortunately, the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia threw a wrench into the prospects of passing sentencing reform but #cut50 still saw a last-minute push post-election to pass both the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act and the 21st Century Cures Act. These two bills provided more than $1 billion in funding to fight the opioid epidemic with treatment, rather than incarceration. The latter bill also included the Comprehensive Justice & Mental Health Act, which was one of the first bills #cut50 endorsed and will reduce the number of mentally ill people who are incarcerated, advance treatment courts for veterans, and provide training resources for law enforcement to recognize and de-escalate situations involving mental illness.
When the hopes for federal sentencing reform were diminishing, #cut50 ramped up a campaign to support President Obama’s historic clemency initiative. The #ClemencyNOW initiative shared the stories of Obama clemency seekers, all of whom were serving harsh sentences for non-violent drug offenses. They brought about 75 families who had loved ones with pending clemency petitions to Washington D.C. for a day of action, and delivered nearly 2 million petition signatures to the Pardon Attorney’s office at the Department of Justice. President Obama eventually granted a historic total of 1,700 clemencies to nonviolent drug offenders before leaving office, but this only made a small dent in the number of people incarcerated under a remarkably harsh federal sentencing regime.
A major highlight for #cut50 this year was their National Day of Empathy in March, which was one of the single largest days of action in criminal justice reform history. With on-the-ground events in 35 states, #cut50 focused on elevating the voices of those most impacted by the criminal justice system by calling on groups across the country to bring impacted individuals to their state capitals to speak directly with their legislators. In California, #cut50 had over 200 crime survivors, formerly incarcerated people, families of murder victims, and the families of those behind bars attend a training retreat and rally in Sacramento, putting them at the center of the debate on crime and justice.
Nationally, the Day of Empathy was wildly successful. It reached 10 million people on social media, generated 250,000 text messages demanding reform, and resulted in 4,000 phone calls to state legislators. More than 2,000 participants all across the country joined. For many participants, it was their first time meeting with their state lawmakers – they were nervous but so empowered afterwards they asked if #cut50 would do the event again next year. (The answer to that was “Yes! Most definitely.”) #cut50 is hosting a national summit later this year to bring their state-based partners together for a day of training in messaging, advocacy, social media and storytelling.
What is #cut50 working on now?
This year, #cut50 is focusing a majority of their efforts on California, which has the largest prison system in the country and has passed strong progressive reforms in the legislature and through ballot initiatives like Propositions 36, 47, and 57. #cut50 wants to keep that momentum moving forward, and they are working on new legislation that would ensure that California treats young people fairly, recognizing their neurological and developmental differences from fully-matured adults, and that reflects the fact that young people have tremendous potential to change and mature. Their hope is that these policies will also be adopted by other states across the country.
#cut50’s legislative efforts include sponsoring a resolution that takes a close look at penalties for accomplices convicted under the Felony Murder Rule. Senate Bill 394, introduced by Senator Ricardo Lara, would give parole hearings to the 300-plus people who are serving life without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as juveniles, once they have served 25 years of their sentence. Senate Bill 395, introduced by Lara and Senator Holly Mitchell, would provide special counsel to juveniles who come into contact with law enforcement officers to ensure young people are not incriminating themselves by waiving their Miranda rights. #cut50 also recently co-sponsored Assembly Bill 1308, introduced by Assembly member Mark Stone, which would extend Youth Offender Parole for young people through age 25, giving them hope and motivation to turn their lives around.
However, bills do not become law unless there is widespread public support. This is where #cut50 plans to mobilize allies and work with broad coalitions to combat harmful rhetoric. #cut50 is working to shift the nation’s focus to solutions that tell a new story – one of justice, hope, and transformation. #cut50 has built a coalition that includes 1,000 Californians from very different walks of life. They are lawyers, community organizers, families of incarcerated people, crime victims, people who have committed violent crimes, policymakers, and therapists among others.
This is also where #cut50’s San Quentin Media Project has been important. #cut50’s team works with San Quentin State Prison and a group of brilliant incarcerated men there to create short, digital videos that share their journey of accountability and transformation. Even though San Quentin is in Marin County, one of the most prosperous and progressive places in the country, much of the county has no concept of the plights of its incarcerated population, nor of the massive potential of the men inside. #cut50 led a tour for Marin County elected officials and leaders in San Quentin and they met with a group of men sentenced to life for crimes they committed as juveniles. As the people closest to the problems are often the ones who have the solutions, the men shared their personal experiences, perspectives, and insights into the current incarceration system and the importance of rehabilitation.
The San Quentin Media Project, which #cut50 is also calling #UnlockGenius, provides a platform for these men to raise their voices, speak about their experiences and about justice. This project is not only intended to accelerate #cut50’s policy work in California but aims to have deep significance across the country, particularly as a response to pervasive “tough on crime” rhetoric.
In closing, what are the current prospects for criminal justice reform?
#cut50 believes it is in for a real fight – but one they believe they will win. Sloan notes that “President Trump rose to power espousing a return to ‘law ’n order’ rhetoric rooted in fear-based notions of rising crime. Attorney General Jeff Sessions openly supports policies like mandatory minimums, criminalizing drug use, heavy-handed policing – all of the terrible policies that created the current incarceration crisis.”
According to Sloan, “It would be easy to slide backwards in this environment.” But #cut50 believes that Democrats and Republicans can still be brought together to work on this issue - and not just in the states but in DC as well. Sloan believes “the problem has just gotten too big and that it is violating many of the nation’s principles as a free, fair, and just society.” She points to some staggering statistics: “Nearly 1 in every 100 Americans is behind bars, 5 million children have an incarcerated parent, and 70 million people are haunted by a criminal record. All of this is not only harmful to individuals and their families, it is actually counterproductive to public safety!”
According to #cut50, governors in red and blue states—notably Ohio, Georgia, Texas, and California—have demonstrated that a fresh approach to criminal justice can address public safety concerns while saving money and healing impacted communities. Polls have shown that Americans, regardless of party affiliation or demographic, overwhelmingly agree that we need to reduce the number of people behind bars and that policies like mandatory minimums have failed and need to be reformed.
So even though it may feel like prison reform is losing ground, #cut50 believes the movement for reform is strong enough to continue to make progress. But they know it won’t be easy and they need all hands on deck to keep moving forward.
Toussaint S. Bailey is a partner in Richards, Watson & Gershon's Litigation Department. He specializes in civil litigation on behalf of both public agencies and private clients. Over the years, Toussaint has expanded his service to clients beyond the pre-litigation and litigation contexts. He now guides numerous clients in an advisory role and he recently served as interim general counsel for a mid-sized corporate client.