The daughter of a Democrat from Sweden and a Trump supporter from Mississippi, Jessica Jackson is used to navigating extremes. In her career as a human rights attorney, she's represented people on California's death row in their appeals. And now, as the national director and cofounder of #Cut50, a national initiative to reduce the prison population, she's brought together unlikely allies to fight for criminal justice reform and an end to mass incarceration.
How unlikely? Well, along with CNN's Van Jones, Jackson helped organise a meeting between Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Kim Kardashian West, and a large bipartisan group of advocates to discuss reforming the criminal justice system and changing the US clemency process. This was just three months after Kardashian West participated in an effort that resulted in granting clemency to Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old grandmother from Tennessee who was serving a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offence.
#Cut50's work with Kushner also helped usher in the historic passage of the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill that promises to, among other things: reduce the huge disparity in punishment between crack cocaine and the powdered form of the drug, curb mandatory minimum sentencing, place prisoners in facilities within at least 500 driving miles of their families, prohibit the shackling of pregnant inmates, and ensure that women have ready access to tampons and sanitary napkins.
But it's Jackson's relationship with Kardashian West that has received the most attention. In what might seem an unlikely match, the city councilwoman and human rights attorney is mentoring the media mogul as Kardashian West undertakes a course of study to pass the California bar. But Jackson says the reality star's recent interest in the law shouldn't be surprising.
"I would say never underestimate Kim Kardashian West," Jackson tells Refinery29. "In all her business ventures, she’s been successful. I have no reason to believe her commitment to criminal justice reform will be any different. Ms. Alice’s story awakened something in her — something that resonates with her father’s career as a lawyer."
With the passage of the First Step Act, Jackson and #Cut50 are now focusing specifically on incarcerated women — the fastest-growing population in United States prisons. They have spearheaded the Dignity for Incarcerated Women campaign, which is led by women who have lived in prisons and know the conditions firsthand and use that experience to work with state legislators to change laws in 20 states by 2020. In a major achievement, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Corey Booker recently reintroduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act. The bill addresses issues that specifically impact incarcerated women, including sexual assault and motherhood.
Jackson recently spoke with Refinery29 about #Cut50's latest initiative, her continuing work to create meaningful criminal justice reform in a sharply divided political climate, and, of course, working with Kim Kardashian West.
What has it been like working across the aisle?
"It’s inspiring. Working across the aisle gives me a lot of hope for what’s possible in this country. When it comes to effecting real policy change, we need to be able to set politics aside and put people in the front seat. We come at this work from a point of empathy. To pass the First Step Act, we brought formerly incarcerated people to Washington, D.C., to speak directly with their representatives, senators, and with the Trump administration. The progress we’ve seen is a testament to the power of their personal stories."
What has been the most surprising thing about working on criminal justice reform?
"That a person’s voice, their experience, can move mountains. Topeka Sam spoke in front of the entire Trump administration about what it was like as an incarcerated woman to have her dignity stripped away. Pamela Winn, who was shackled while pregnant and suffered a tragic miscarriage because of mistreatment from prison staff, shared her experience with Sen. Cory Booker and other lawmakers. We had grown men emailing and calling us saying they cried hearing these stories.
"We know the statistics — millions of Americans are incarcerated. But to your question, the surprise is seeing the incredible power of those individuals who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system. It’s extremely compelling. We always knew these voices would be at the centre of #Cut50’s work — but what I didn’t realise is that they’d have such a remarkable effect. If we can continue to get people like Topeka, Pamela, and others in the room to share their stories, we can create lasting change."
What is some of the legislation you are supporting now?
"I believe we should be making stronger investments in parents and children — investments that keep families from being ripped apart. Nearly 80% of incarcerated women are mothers, and their incarceration is not a burden they shoulder alone. We know that sending a parent or caregiver to prison has catastrophic consequences on a child.
"[The Primary Caregiver Pretrial Diversion Act in California, for instance], would provide community-based sentencing alternatives for caregivers who have been convicted of non-violent crimes. It’s a groundbreaking new proposal that we hope will be mirrored by other states, and by Congress. There is a growing national dialogue around incarceration reform, rooted in collaboration, that we’re proud to be contributing to. We’re going to fight to get this accomplished."
What has it been like working with Kim Kardashian West? What would you say to people who doubt her motives for wanting to get a legal education?
"Like everyone on the #Cut50 team, Kim cares deeply about people who are negatively impacted by incarceration. She has spent time with us meeting with people living inside prisons, meeting with formerly incarcerated people, crafting policy, and working on individual cases, while also learning more about the law. I’m proud of the work she’s doing.
"So I would say never underestimate Kim Kardashian West. In all her business ventures, she’s been successful. I have no reason to believe her commitment to criminal justice reform will be any different. Ms. Alice’s story awakened something in her — something that resonates with her father’s career as a lawyer. To change the system we have now, you have to really understand how that system works. Or, more importantly, how it doesn’t work. That’s the approach I took, and I think she’s coming at her legal education the same way."