A Conversation with Jessica Jackson Sloan in her Fight against Mass Incarceration

Jessica Jackson Sloan

WHEN SHE WAS 22, Jessica Jackson (her name then), would drive for seven hours from Georgia into Florida with her 3-month-old daughter in the back seat. She did this once a month for more than a year. Her purpose: to visit her then-husband, the child’s father, who was in prison for nonviolent crimes.

Even after the couple divorced, Sloan continued her quest to fix the criminal justice system, incensed over how it had treated her daughter’s father. After earning a law degree at Santa Clara University’s School of Law in 2011 and passing the state bar exam the following year, she worked as a human rights attorney, representing California death row inmates in their appeals.

Now, 33 and remarried, Jessica Jackson Sloan is a Mill Valley city council member and slated to be that city’s next mayor after the council’s next rotation. Last year, Sloan co-founded and now works full time as director of a nationwide bipartisan effort aimed at dramatically reducing America’s incarceration rate. A nonprofit named #cut50, it’s based in Oakland.

Sloan and her husband, Craig, a Mill Valley firefighter, live in Mill Valley with her two daughters.

Frankly, with so many responsibilities, you seem spread very thin. I agree, I do a lot. But a lot of the things I do are really relevant to each other and really inform each other. Basically, they involve government at the national, state and local levels. I work two days a week in Oakland and three days a week at home. And we’re fortunate with my husband Craig’s schedule. As a firefighter, he’s on two days, then off four days. He’s really great about helping with the kids. And my mom lives in town and she helps. But it’s not easy. Luckily, I’m organized and we use spreadsheets and checklists and know in advance what our schedules will be; we make things fit. Here’s a funny story: my dad lives in Mississippi and he thinks with such a busy schedule I should be making lots of money, which of course I’m not. And he’s always thought that I was “allergic to money.” So when I told him I was running for the Mill Valley city council, he said, “That’s just great, Jessica; so how much will that pay?” I said, “Three hundred dollars a month.” Then he said, “See, that proves it, you are allergic to money.”

For $300 a month, what is your passion as a Mill Valley city council member? I’m really concerned about the lack of affordable housing. Take a family like ours. I feel I contribute to the community and my husband grew up here; he’s definitely part of the community. He’s the only Mill Valley firefighter who actually lives in Mill Valley. This means if a big storm or an earthquake comes and knocks out East Blithedale or Miller Avenue, he’s the only one who can quickly respond and help out the department. Yet we’ve been looking for a three-bedroom home in this town for under a million dollars and we just can’t find one. Which is crazy. We have the money to put down and we earn enough to qualify for a big home anywhere else in the country, but not here. So it’s crazy and I’m doing whatever I can to change it.

Your other concerns as a city council member? I’ve also been known to advocate heavily for fixing the sidewalks here in town. And it’s not just broken sidewalks but a lack of sidewalks. The street our daughter walks to school on doesn’t have a sidewalk and we have to warn her to stay close to the curb. Another thing that’s important to me was the recent passage of a rigid multifamily smoking ban. This protects people living in close quarters from fire damage as well as the risk to their health.

Let’s change course now and discuss #cut50. OK, #cut50 is the Oakland-based nonprofit with the mission of reducing America’s incarceration rate by 50 percent by 2025. I helped found it after I met Van Jones, the head of Dream Corps, who’s probably best known for being President Obama’s green jobs adviser and from appearing on CNN’s Crossfire. Well, Van was on Crossfire with Newt Gingrich; they formed a friendship and talked about issues. And of course, they couldn’t agree on anything until criminal justice came up and then they talked about reducing America’s enormous prison population. It was the one issue they felt would have bipartisan support. Van and Newt agreed that America’s justice system was broken, that our prison population was way too high and there was racial disparity and economic waste, and even that there were people behind bars who shouldn’t be there — who could be out of prison contributing to society instead. As President Obama has said, the U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population, yet 25 percent of the world’s prison population. That means we have 2.2 million people in our prisons and jails and it’s costing us over $80 billion a year.

Sloan family of Mill Valley
The Sloan family hanging out at Mill Valley’s Depot square.

What’s been accomplished so far? We’ve been heavily supporting the Safe, Accountable, Fair and Effective, or SAFE, Justice Act sponsored by Congressmen Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.), as well as the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act co-authored by a bipartisan group of senators led by Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). There are several other bills we support, some of which were introduced at the summit we held last year at the Capitol Hilton in Washington, D.C. We started by thinking small, maybe 100 people. But then we got calls from congressmen from both sides of the aisle wanting to speak. And the Justice Department agreed to have Attorney General Eric Holder speak, provided we had a bigger audience. We ended up with 800 people attending and 84 speakers, including Eric Holder; plus Newt Gingrich in a conversation with Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey. Nathan Deal, the Republican governor of Georgia, was our luncheon keynote speaker and President Obama sent us a personal video endorsing our efforts. The conservative former California assemblyman Pat Nolan, who served prison time himself, was a speaker; so was the Democratic Party National Committee’s Donna Brazile. We had over a dozen sponsors from both the left and the right, including the ACLU and Koch Industries. One of the speakers, #cut50’s own Shaka Senghor, who served 19 years in prison for a second-degree homicide, recently published his memoir Writing My Wrongs, which debuted on the New York Times best seller list. Many of the organizations that supported the summit also supported his book and encouraged their members to buy copies.

How do America’s prison systems compare with other nations’? There’s a huge difference between our prisons and much of the rest of the world’s prisons. In many countries, prisoners have their dignity when they enter prison and they’re treated like human beings while in prison. They’re given a room, along with medical care and family visitations, and they are allowed to touch other people. Here in America, prisoners many times are treated like animals. They’re locked in a cage, often left alone for 23 hours a day at a stretch. It’s a dangerous environment and we’re simply not investing in the people we put in our prisons. We invest in the private corporations that bring food, towels and linens into our prisons, but not in the prisoners themselves. We should teach them job skills, give them therapy and/ or substance counseling, so that they have a better chance of success when they get out.

In closing, any specifics for reducing America’s high rate of incarceration? Basically, there are three: one, we must absolutely reduce, if not eliminate, our mandatory sentencing laws. The one-size-fits-all in sentencing situations is just not working. It is filling up our prisons. Two, neither are the three-strikes laws. Here in California, we got rid of mandatory three-strike sentencing for nonviolent crimes and that was good, but they should be reduced even further. And three, another factor in America’s high incarceration rate is the for-profit prisons. Nobody should be making money off of locking up people. I’m proud to say that in California, #cut50 has been a strong supporter of stopping the construction of for-profit prisons.


This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “Jessica Jackson Sloan.”