Criminal Justice

Van Jones Praises Conservatives on Criminal Justice Reform: 'You Are Stealing My Issue!'

Overall, CPAC attendees seem enthusiastic about criminal justice reform.


Evan Golub/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Some might see Van Jones as out of place at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). The former Obama administration adviser, who currently works as a political commentator for CNN, is a liberal, and CPAC, is well, not.

But that's not how Jones sees it. "If you're on Twitter calling me a sellout for working with [President Donald] Trump on criminal justice reform, here's what I know about you," Jones said Thursday during a panel discussion with Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union (ACU), which organizes CPAC. "If you're on Twitter, you're not in a federal prison because they don't have Twitter in federal prison. I don't have to listen to you. I care about the people who are locked up."

Jones was a high-profile advocate for the FIRST STEP Act, a White House-endorsed bill that served as the first major criminal justice reform legislation to become law in years. As Reason's C.J. Ciaramella reports, the act reduces some mandatory minimums and bans the shackling of pregnant female inmates in federal prisons, among other reforms. Jones praised Trump after the bill passed the Senate, saying the president "has got to get the credit."

Speaking with Reason prior to addressing CPAC, Jones emphasized the need for liberals and conservatives to come together and have civil discussions. "Matt Schlapp and I disagree on so many things. But we respect each other, and we listen to each other," Jones said. "And we also do agree on criminal justice reform."

"And I hope Republicans and conservatives will take on board the fact that conservatives have been leading on criminal justice reform in the state level for a long time," he added. "This is no longer a liberal cause. It's a bipartisan cause in part led by conservatives."

During the panel discussion, Jones pointed to efforts by Republican governors in three states to reform their respective criminal justice systems. In Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant has received praise for reducing the number of incarcerated individuals. In Texas, former governor and current Energy Secretary Ricky Perry helped overhaul the agency in charge of locking up juvenile offenders, in addition to agreeing to new standards for crime labs in order to lower the number of wrongful convictions. Finally, former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal also overhauled his state's justice system in a manner that decreased the number of black people who were sent to state prisons.

"What you're seeing now is Republican governors being tough on the dollars, tough on crime, and shrinking prison populations and showing the rest of the country that it can be done," Jones said. "I now have a conservative movement that, for libertarian reasons, for Christian conservative reasons, and for fiscally conservative reasons, is actually doing a great job on what should be my issue."

"This is supposed to be my issue! You are stealing my issue!" he added, to the laughter and applause of the crowd. "Take some dadgum credit for being smart. Take some dadgum credit for getting it right."

Jones' speech was well-received, aside from one moment where the crowd booed after he suggested that undocumented immigrants have lower crime rates than native-born Americans. Nor was he the only criminal justice reform advocate to address CPAC. So, too, did Pat Nolan, director of the ACU Foundation's Center of Criminal Justice Reform, and New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis.

"It's an unjust system because it's exploiting the people who don't have the money," Davis told Reason after addressing the conference, pointing to the number of people who are incarcerated without being convicted because they can't make bail. The fact that this happens "in a country where we're presumed to be innocent," Davis explained, is "a crime in itself."

Davis said he was glad to have the opportunity to address the issue, because talking about it at CPAC "makes people more aware of what's going on."

Conference attendees seemed to support the idea of working with those on the other side of the aisle to reform the system. One attendee, Tom Henderson, said he doesn't "really trust" Jones and "was surprised" when he learned the former Obama adviser would be speaking. But he praised Trump for "getting into the whole mess of incarceration of people…who probably shouldn't be incarcerated because they're not really a threat to our country."

"We've got all these people that are locked up right now," added Tom's son, Nick, referring to nonviolent offenders, particularly those convicted of cannabis-related crimes. "Getting these people back out, giving them a chance to reengage with their life and catch up to where their life would be if they hadn't been subject to such an unjust system," Nick added, "is a good move."

According to Howard "Cowboy" Wooldridge, a retired Michigan police detective who now runs an advocacy group called Citizens Opposing Prohibition (COP), many young conservatives are now realizing the failure of the War on Drugs. The older crowd, he suggested, is another question, though some of them are coming around as well.

"I think it's an awesome bipartisan issue that we can all get behind, so I have no problem working across the aisle on stuff we can all agree on," said Lacey White, who has worked on criminal justice reform in her capacity as policy coordinator for the American Legislative Exchange Council. "And if it saves taxpayer money and it helps people change lives, that's awesome."

"I feel like that's an issue that both parties can come to agreements on, just because our jails and our justice system suck at the moment," added Donna Molloy, a student as Millersville University, who pointed to the "long sentencings that people get for minimum crimes."

"That's an issue we can come together on. And I'm glad that someone from the left is coming here and speaking on the issue," she added, referring to Jones.

During his panel discussion, meanwhile, Jones summed up why he's working with conservatives on this issue. "Justice without liberty is totalitarianism," he said. "Liberty without justice is also a nightmare."

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  1. On this, Jones gets it. Do good rather than feel good.

    After Alice Marie Johnson, the president asked for more names. The NFL players coalition swallowed some pride and gave him a few (along with calls for reform). Work with whoever you have to work with to get things done.

  2. “they don’t have Twitter in federal prison.”

    Sheesh, I thought Van had done criminal justice reform!

    1. If Twitter isn’t cruel and unusual, I don’t know what is.

    2. Shiv someone and spend a week in solitary or Tweet?

      Tough choice.

      I would rather get shivved because I had shivved someone else than get shivved because I or someone else Tweeted.

  3. People forget that it was actually TX that was the first state to start criminal justice reform around 2013

  4. Trump 100- Lefties 0

    Trump doing something on prison reform that groups advocated for, really took the wind out of Lefty sails.

  5. Van Jones has a decent personality. I could see myself having an engaging conversation with him.

    For instance, I would ask him, “did you see Jussie Smollet take that punch?”

  6. As long as we don’t swing the pendulum to the other extreme and release repeat violent felons just to show how non-incarcerat-y we are.

  7. I did not rtfa.

    But, based on the headline, I’m guessing this to be a puff piece, or at least contain praise, of Van Jones – avowed (former?) communist and former czar of green energy.
    Ok. It’s cool he wants justice reform.
    Of course, Tucker Carlson – who claims to be libertarian leaning at least, gives people like Tulsi Gabbard and Reasons own Robby Soave a platform on his show, and has never been a czar of anything, is only written about for the purpose of criticism and calumny.

    But Reason is totes libertarian and not crypto-progressive at all

    1. More libertarian than you, that’s for sure.

      1. Cool?
        I don’t claim to be libertarian. Reason magazine does.
        And as advocates for libertarianism go, they’re not good.
        Reason magazine has moved me further from libertarianism, not closer, because they take shitty, absolutist, dishonest positions.
        Not as shitty, absolutist, or dishonest as you, but I don’t know why you even claim to be libertarian or an individualist. Apparently thinking of yourself as such is vital to your identity. Who knows, you might be happier if you just came out of the closet – to yourself, more than anybody else.

        1. “To thine own self be true.”

          Jeff is not an individualist or libertarian or capitalist.

          Reason has engaged some writers with a few libertarian thoughts, but mostly to stir up the pot from other perspectives. While I don’t agree with many, I appreciate that Reason isn’t a propaganda sheet. Even trolls like Jeff and Tony help us sharpen our game.

          KWM > Sullum >> Welch > Gillespie > Soave > Suderman >> Shika

          1. Jeff is not an individualist or libertarian or capitalist.

            Oh let me guess, I’m a progressive authoritarian collectivist communist or something, right? Even though I take the individualist, pro-liberty, anti-statist view on virtually every issue, so much so that Nardz goes around mocking me that he thinks I went too far on the individualist angle.

            Seriously you guys. Too many of you must be stuck in the left-right duopoly. You see people like me objecting to the right-wing crap that is spewed in the comments day after day, and your knee-jerk conclusion is “look at that guy, he’s a LEFTIST!!!!!!!!!” No, I’m not a leftist, and I’m not a rightist. So fuck off if that is what you think.

            1. Jeff name one issue you take the pro-liberty anti collectivist side on? Even your open borders nonsense requires others to subvert to you and your ideals. You are about as pro-liberty as Stalin without the cool moustache.

            2. “Nardz goes around mocking me that he thinks I went too far on the individualist angle.”

              This is either a deliberate misreading or woeful misunderstanding of anything I’ve ever said to you. Indeed, I often comment that you have the most collectivist perspective of anybody here… including Tony.

              As for your ideological position, I’d call it “anarcho-progressive” or “progressive anarchist” – yes, it’s rather incoherent.
              You deny the legitimacy of any state, claiming collectivism, while 100% believing in and supporting the progressive worldview. You equate All, which negates each person individually, while calling anyone who differs from Leftist thought a bigot, which in the most technical sense is extreme bigotry.
              You got a lot of stuff to work out with yourself, dude.

              1. None of which is to mention the pathologic need you have to treat your fantasies as reality – aka psychosis

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