This week President Obama has launched a major push to reform the country’s criminal justice system. On Monday, he granted clemency to 46 men and women facing extreme sentences – in some cases life in prison – for nonviolent drug offenses. Tomorrow he is set to become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. On Tuesday, Obama described what he called a “broken system” in an address at the NAACP’s annual convention. During his speech, Obama praised the “unlikely bedfellows” campaigning together for criminal justice reform from the left and right, including the Koch Brothers and Van Jones. We speak to Jones, Obama’s former green jobs adviser, and Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries, where he is a close adviser to its leader, Charles Koch. We also speak to Shaka Senghor. He shot and killed a man in 1991. At the age of 19, he went to prison for 19 years, seven of which he spent in solitary confinement. He has used his experience to inspire and motivate others to understand the causes of youth violence.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: This week President Obama has launched a major push to reform the country’s criminal justice system. On Monday, he granted clemency to 46 men and women facing extreme sentences – in some cases life in prison – for nonviolent drug offenses. Tomorrow, he’s set to become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. On Tuesday, Obama described what he called a, quote, “broken system” in an address at the NAACP’s annual convention.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Think about that. Our incarceration rate is four times higher than China’s. We keep more people behind bars than the top 35 European countries combined.
And it hasn’t always been the case, this huge explosion in incarceration rates. In 1980, there were 500,000 people behind bars in America. Half a million people in 1980. I was in college in 1980. Many of you were not born in 1980, that’s OK. I remember 1980, 500,000. Today, there are 2.2 million. It has quadrupled since 1980. Our prison population has doubled in the last two decades alone.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In President Obama’s call for an overhaul of the criminal justice system, he also emphasized that the vast majority of prisoners will eventually be released and need more programs to help them re-enter society and to remove barriers to employment and voting. This week, House lawmakers are holding hearings on the SAFE Justice Act, which could accomplish some of these goals. It was introduced by Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner and Democrat Bobby Scott. On Tuesday, Obama recognized this bipartisan effort.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is a cause that’s bringing people in both houses of Congress together. It’s created some unlikely bedfellows. You’ve got Van Jones and Newt Gingrich. You’ve got Americans for Tax Reform and the ACLU. You’ve got the NAACP and the Koch brothers. No, you’ve got to give them credit. You’ve got to call it like you see it.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by three guests, some who got a shout-out from President Obama there and are at the center of this push to make the criminal justice system more fair. In Boston, Van Jones is joining us. He’s president and co-founder of #cut50, a national bipartisan initiative reduce the US incarcerated population by 50 percent over the next 10 years. He was President Barack Obama’s green jobs czar in 2009 and founded Green for All. He’s also a CNN political commentator.
In Wichita, Kansas, we’re joined by one of those unlikely bedfellows to whom President Obama referred. Mark Holden is senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries, where he’s a close adviser to its leader, Charles Koch. Koch Industries is a supporter of the criminal justice group called the Coalition for Public Safety.
And we’re joined in Boston by Shaka Senghor, who shot and killed a man in 1991. At the age of 19, he went to prison for 19 years, seven of which he spent in solitary confinement. He has used his experience to inspire and motivate others to understand the causes of youth violence.
We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Van Jones, let’s begin with you. Can you react to President Obama’s speech yesterday, what you found was most cutting-edge about what he said – did anything surprise you – and what you’re doing?
VAN JONES: Well, first of all, it’s just really good to be here. It’s good to be back. I haven’t been with you for a couple years, Amy, so – I always love coming on the show. I also just want to say that I thought the president’s speech was courageous, but it wasn’t as courageous as it might have been even two or three years ago.
We are in the middle of a very rare convergence. Both political parties, Republicans and Democrats, were stuck on stupid for 30 years, chasing each other off a cliff to put more and more people in prison. The way you showed you were a smart politician was you tried to one-up your opponent on how many people you wanted to put behind bars for petty offenses. And so, three strikes and you’re out; two strikes and you’re out; just, hey, if you’re black, you’re out – that became politics for both parties. Bill Clinton was a mass incarcerator. Let’s not forget that.
Suddenly, over the past few years, building momentum, in both parties, you have both parties saying this was a mistake, this was a catastrophe for America. We now have 2.2, 2.3 million people behind bars. So, the president giving this speech is very inspirational, but let’s be clear: You have Republican governors, from Rick Perry in Texas who’s been closing prisons; you have Republican governors like Kasich in Ohio, Deal in Georgia, who have been closing prisons and giving very similar speeches. You now have five bipartisan bills, with Rand Paul and Cory Booker coming together, Sensenbrenner and Bobby Scott in the House coming together, right wing, left wing coming together, saying, “We’ve got to go a different direction.”
So, next week, when the SAFE Justice Act – I’ll say it again, the SAFE Justice Act – finally gets a little bit of daylight and some hearings in the House, I believe you’re going to see a remarkable thing happen in D.C. Democracy might actually work for the people instead of the powerful, because even the top of the Democratic Party, the top of the Republican Party, and the base of both parties is tired of mass incarceration.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries, has this been a catastrophe? Why is Koch Industries getting involved in this? And talk about your own experience with the criminal justice system.
MARK HOLDEN: Yeah, good morning. Thanks for having us here – having me here today. And yeah, well, Koch’s been involved for many years now, and it all comes down to, at the outset, that really what we’re trying to do is to help people remove their lives – improve their lives, excuse me, by removing obstacles to opportunity. Charles Koch and David Koch are classical liberals who believe in expansive individual liberties in the Bill of Rights and limited government. And so, if your goals are to honor the Bill of Rights and to remove obstacles to opportunity, especially for the poor and the disadvantaged, you have to be in the criminal justice arena.
And to answer your question, you know, as Van pointed out, what worked 20 or 30 years ago doesn’t work today. And we have to have the intellectual honesty and courage and humility to correct that. In our businesses, we do that all the time when things aren’t working. And I think, to Van’s point, what we’re seeing happen in the states is really a template for what should happen at the federal level, and making sure that everything we do enhances public safety and that it honors the Bill of Rights and treats everybody in the system as individuals with dignity and respect, particularly victims, law enforcement, the incarcerated, the accused and their families.
And to your point, my experience, I grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, and I was a prison guard to help pay for college for a couple years. And what I saw there firsthand – this was in the early ’80s when the drug wars were beginning – were a number of people I went to high school and middle school with who were in prison. And these were kids who were poor, who didn’t have family support, who made mistakes, who got hooked up on drugs and then got in a cycle of despair, and it led them, some of them, to a life of crime. A couple of them are in life in prison now because they made more and more mistakes.
And so, what I think we’re seeing across the country and from the left and the right – and we’re proud to be part of the Coalition for Public Safety – is people coming together and realizing what worked 20 or 30 years ago, if it worked ever, isn’t working now. And it’s morally, constitutionally and fiscally the right thing to do to reform our criminal justice system.
AMY GOODMAN: Shaka Senghor, can you talk about your own experience and what you are pushing for today? You spent seven years in solitary confinement?
SHAKA SENGHOR: Yes. I was incarcerated at the age of 19. When I entered the prison system, I walked into a very brutal, volatile environment. And from the onset, there was no rehabilitative tools in place. And so, like many of the young men I got incarcerated with, I got caught up in the day-to-day realities of prison life of survival. And unfortunately, I landed in solitary confinement multiple times, and the longest stint was four-and-a-half years straight.
And it was in that space that I actually discovered my own humanity and figured out kind of some of the root causes to why so many of the young men from my community landed in prison. And it was in there that I began to write in journal and kind of think about what are some of the steps we can take to ensure that young men and women aren’t being hurt in the prison, and if they are incarcerated, what are some of the things we can do to ensure that once they return to society, that they have a fighting chance of getting back on their feet, becoming contributing members to society, and as assets as opposed to liabilities. And unfortunately, the brokenness of our system hasn’t set the platform for that to take place.
And so, the thing that I advocate for most importantly and first was to be honest about what has happened in American society to land so many young, poor men and women in prison in the first place. And one of the greatest examples that I use is that when I walked out of prison, I went into a school in the inner city of Detroit and began mentoring. And what I noticed about the school, that it was in worse condition than any prison that I had ever been in. And that spoke volumes about where our interests were at and how much we cared about those in the inner city who often fill up the prisons.
And so, as an advocate, it’s important for me to point out that there are root causes to this problem that we haven’t addressed and that we should be looking at as we talk about reform, that it starts, you know, in terms of what’s happening in the communities. But also, for the men and women who are incarcerated, we have to realize that the majority of them, violent or nonviolent, are returning to our communities and that we, as a nation, have a responsibility to understand what kind of men and women we want to ensure comes back to society.
I was fortunate that I was literate when I went to prison, so I had an advantage that the majority didn’t have, in the sense that I was able to advance my education on my own, set up my prison cell like a school, you know, a university of higher learning. But that’s just not the reality that takes place inside prison.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. We’re joined by Shaka Senghor, who served 19 years in prison, about seven of that in solitary confinement. Mark Holden is joining us from Wichita, Kansas. He is the general counsel for Koch Industries, for Charles and David Koch. And Van Jones is with us, founder of #cut50. We’ll be back in a minute.