"We didn't really pause when we got the invitation to come to the White House and meet with Jared Kushner," Jessica Jackson Sloan, a human rights attorney and #Cut50's national director and co-founder, says. "I can say the first thing that struck me about him was how genuinely authentic he was about the issue because of the impact his father’s incarceration had had on him."
That initial meeting, along with many others, culminated in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday passing the First Step Act, a historic bipartisan criminal justice reform bill. The legislation is likely to pass in the House and U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to sign it, all before Congress goes on break for the holidays.
Dysfunction and scandal in the White House often dominate news headlines about Kushner, along with his wife, presidential adviser and first daughter Ivanka Trump. But those at #Cut50 — an organization that lobbies for criminal justice reform and reducing the U.S. prison population — the couple was instrumental in getting the First Step Act passed, which has the potential to reduce the sentences of thousands of people in U.S. federal prison. The bill also bans shackling women inmates during childbirth and calls for placing inmates in prisons closer to their families.
"At first, I had my doubts. What I knew about Ivanka and Jared is everything you read in the news," Jackson Sloan, who's a Democrat, tells Refinery29 of meeting Jared at the White House. "I live in the Bay Area — It’s the heart of the resistance. I’ve definitely seen a different side of them up close and personal."
Jackson recounts a time when she was in a meeting at the White House and Ivanka dropped in unscheduled. "She wanted to hear more about clemency. Her number one concern was, when people come home [from prison], what do they have? She said, ‘I want to be involved in this issue from a workforce development perspective because it doesn’t do any good to bring people home if they don’t have an opportunity to work.’"
According to those at #cut50 who worked closely with Kushner, the president's son-in-law was tireless in his efforts to bring attention to criminal justice reform. Earlier this year, Kushner and Ivanka, along with the help of Kim Kardashian West, got clemency for Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old grandmother from Tennessee who was serving a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense.
"Part of the transformation we’ve seen from the president going from talking about American carnage to endorsing the First Step Act have been these cases put in front of him and Jared paying attention and looking for them," Jackson Sloan tells Refinery29. "He’s always been a tough on crime president but now he’s become tough but fair. I do think it’s pretty incredible the way Jared’s been able to work and bring the right people into the room. I think his courage, stepping up and stepping out on this issue is what has motivated others to step up and take notice of the issue and endorse it."
As the bill's name implies, the First Step Act is just the start of the push to overhaul the U.S. criminal justice system. “The First Step Act prioritizes justice, rehabilitation, and public safety," Jackson Sloan said in a statement to Refinery29 on Wednesday. "As the bill heads toward final passage tonight, the House Thursday and ultimately to the President’s desk, we will keep fighting to prevent any changes that might hurt those impacted."