When Jessica Jackson’s ex-husband was released from prison, he was put on parole. He was able to secure a job, housing, and most importantly was able to help out with their three-year-old daughter. One day he got pulled over for a busted tail light, and ended up spending 60 days in county jail. Police alleged he hadn’t been reporting for parole, but really there had been an error in their computer system. By the time he successfully petitioned the judge, he had already lost his job and fallen behind on rent payments. This is the collateral damage caused by the U.S. parole system.
In 2018, there were 4.4 million adults on parole or probation in the United States. Jessica, now Chief Advocacy Officer of the parole-focused nonprofit REFORM Alliance, has made it her mission to reform our national approach to incarceration.
“I had a front row seat to watch what it looks like for somebody coming home when [my ex-husband] was placed on parole,” said Jessica. “The difficult work was really being able to rebuild his life and get housing and employment, and get connected back with his [daughter]. It was just devastating for him.”
Who Is Jessica Jackson?
Jessica’s experience with the criminal justice system, as a then 22-year-old who had dropped out of high school, helped inspire her to go to college, and eventually law school. Since then, she’s served as Mayor of Mill Valley, California for one term as the town’s youngest elected official, co-founder of the bipartisan prison reform organization #cut50 (now DreamCorps JUSTICE) with news commentator Van Jones, and helped establish the First Step Act of 2018, a federal law aimed at, among other goals, reducing the prison population.
“There are underlying reasons why people get sent to prison, and it’s trauma, it’s inability to access the resources they need for mental health or substance abuse support,” Jessica said. “My friend says, ‘Hurt people hurt people’, and I think that’s very true. In America this narrative is put out that some people are bad, but that’s not what’s driving crime in America. It’s actually the lack of opportunities and social infrastructure for so many people. We can decarcerate all day long, but what we really need is to focus on preventing crime and making sure people have the resources they need.”
Systemic Prison and Parole Issues in the United States
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 85 percent of those incarcerated in US prisons have either been sentenced for drug crimes or currently have a substance abuse disorder. Rather than receiving real rehabilitative care, masses of people are cycled through the criminal justice system.
There are millions of people right now on parole or probation, and it’s shocking just how easy it is to end up back in jail.
“A large percentage of [people on parole or probation] end up back [in prison], and not because they’re out there committing crimes, or because they’re any sort of public safety risk. They might miss a meeting with a probation officer,” said Jessica. “How many times in your own life are you late paying a bill or late for a meeting?”
Mass supervision has become a driver of mass incarceration. 1 out of every 4 people who are in prison today are there because of a parole or probation violation.
The First Step Act of 2018
When the First Step Act passed in December 2018, it was lauded as a bipartisan achievement. The bill’s six, complex provisions were to be implemented over a three-year period, meaning it should currently be in full effect. Its purpose was to reduce recidivism - the issue of repeat crimes leading to continued and longer prison sentences - and to decrease the federal incarcerated population through reassessment of sentencing laws and prison procedures.
But the First Step Act has run into implementation issues due to the Covid-19 pandemic. A key aspect of the law is something called earned time credits. Those incarcerated can reduce their sentence by participating in rehabilitative programming, which is usually provided by nonprofit groups. The issue is that many prisons became closed to outside visitors, including those nonprofit groups, when the pandemic first began. As a result, many incarcerated people were unable to accrue earned time credits for an extended period of time.
The act also made it easier for those incarcerated to access what’s called compassionate release, when people who are terminally ill, elderly, or otherwise medically at risk are released from prison. The CARES Act of 2020 built on this aspect of First Step, and made it possible for those with serious Covid-19 risk factors to finish their sentences under home confinement, rather than in prison.
Returning to Prison: Is the First Step Act's Progress in Danger?
But as vaccines have been rolled out in this country, many people undergoing home confinement have been brought back to prison. This is thanks to Trump’s Attorney General, Bill Barr, who penned a memo three days before leaving office in January 2021, arguing that Congress had not authorized the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to allow people to remain under home confinement, but had only authorized the BOP to temporarily release people into home confinement.
“Essentially these folks would have to report back at the end of the pandemic, which is such an arbitrary [timeline], because no one knows when this pandemic is going to be over,” said Jessica. “This would be devastating. They’ve come home, they’ve gotten jobs, they’ve gotten their housing, they’ve been able to reconnect with a loved one. Now, they’re under threat, living every day on the edge of their seats and wondering if they’re going to have to go back to federal prison.”
The Biden administration is wrangling with this issue. It is unclear whether there will be some kind of mass executive action to prevent this, or whether these people will be forced to return to prison. As it stands, those under home confinement because of their Covid-19 risk factors have a recidivism rate of less than 1 percent. The national recidivism rate, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, is 67.5 percent.
The First Step Act has had a broad impact on the U.S. prison system, and yet did not fall victim to partisan politics when it was being deliberated. It was a true bipartisan bill that was signed into law by President Trump.
Bipartisan Efforts on Prison Reform: Jessica Jackson's Hopes for the Future with REFORM Alliance
Jessica herself very much grew up in a bipartisan household. “My mom’s a super liberal from Sweden who lives in the Bay Area, and my dad is a Trump-supporting Republican who lives down in Georgia,” she said. “So it’s always been in my nature to listen to people and figure out how to talk to them based on what their principles and values are.”
Putting the First Step Act together was possible because of this strategy. Jessica believes that prison reform is an ideal area for conservatives and liberals to find common ground.
“Republicans believe in smaller government, and you don’t have a bigger, more bureaucratic, more bloated system than our prison system,” said Jessica. “They believe in accountability and transparency. There is no system you can point to in this country that has less transparency than our prison system. So we’ve been able to really come together from both sides of the aisle and find some common language to be able to talk about some common solutions.”
The reality is that addressing these issues is much more cost-effective than incarcerating someone for years at a time. On average, it costs $31,307 to incarcerate one person for one year. At REFORM Alliance, Jessica and her colleagues have been adding reinvestment clauses to bills that they work on. A certain percentage of whatever money is saved by the bill’s decarceral provisions are required to be reinvested in social services that will provide people with needed resources, and in the long-run reduce recidivism and crime.
Systemic Failures: Can We Change the Prison-Industrial Complex?
Though the cost of imprisoning someone is high, state and private prisons can still generate big profits based on the number of people they’ve incarcerated. The profit motive behind capturing human bodies contributes to a larger systemic failure of the criminal justice system to properly address the real roots of crime
“[We don’t] talk about the reasons why people commit crimes, because there is a sort of fascination with crime people,” Jessica said. “Serial killers and bad people out there doing all these types of things. It’s like a boogeyman’s perspective. It hasn’t been [a narrative] in which people have been humanized, it’s been more that people are painted to be monsters.”
U.S. taxpayers fund a flawed system that puts profits over the health and safety of individuals. It’s time to speak up about the devastating impact of the prison industrial complex.
For more information on REFORM Alliance, visit reformalliance.com.
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A version of this article first appeared in Honeysuckle's FREEDOM print edition, featuring Damian Marley. Buy your copy and our latest issue here.