On this episode of Mic Dispatch, we sit down with activist and reality star Kim Kardashian West and CNN commentator Van Jones to discuss the possibilities of commuting sentences for those who’ve been incarcerated for “low-level” drug convictions. Just weeks after Kardashian West aided the Trump administration in pardoning Alice Marie Johnson — who was serving a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense — she’s now pursuing the release of Chris Young, who was sentenced to life in prison for a drug possession conviction nearly a decade ago.This is how
Jake Horowitz, co-founder, Mic: The fear is that this is some form of a political ploy that rather than a deep commitment.
Kim Kardashian West: I truly think it is a genuine commitment, but let’s say it’s not: It’s still helping a lot of people and getting people out.
Horowitz, to camera: Are celebrities the best way to get policy changed in Trump’s Washington? Kim Kardashian West is back at the White House, three months after successfully lobbying President Donald Trump to free Alice Marie Johnson from prison. She spent the summer visiting prisons across the country and talking to inmates in order to learn more about criminal justice issues. Now, she’s pushing for broader reform, and she invited me to join along.
Horowitz, to Kardashian West: Maybe I can just start by asking you what you’re doing here in D.C.
Kardashian West: Yeah, we are here for — I don’t know if I’d call it really a summit, but we’re having a meeting with about 20 people to really discuss clemency and how the process could change and be better.
Horowitz: And so, just catch us up to speed a little bit since Alice Johnson was freed. Sounds like you’ve been working on a few other cases that you’re going to talk about today. What has it been like?
Kardashian West: Yeah. You know, Alice — I always think, like, people always ask me, “How did I find Alice?” and I really feel like Alice found me and it was just meant to happen and it just opened up something inside of me where I felt like, “OK, if we could get this done for one person, we can’t stop at one person. I mean, the laws actually have to be changed.”
Horowitz (voiceover): Along the way, Kardashian West linked up with Van Jones — who, outside of his role as a CNN host, is also the co-founder of #Cut50, a criminal justice reform organization.
Van Jones: The fact that we are two years into the Trump administration and we’re debating the size of prison reform and criminal justice reform, I think, is encouraging. And so, part of the reason that we’re here today is because, when Kim Kardashian stood up for one person and that person got out, it inspired the whole country and it changed something in the conversation about clemency, about second chances, about giving people a shot.
Horowitz: You both have spent time with the president and with Jared Kushner and members of the administration. The fear is that this is some form of a political ploy rather than a deep commitment.
Kardashian West: I truly think it is a genuine commitment, but let’s say it’s not: It’s still helping a lot of people and getting people out. So I’ve seen nothing but just truly a genuine commitment. But I’ve always taken that stance, like it’s still getting the job done no matter what anybody thinks.
Jones: You’ve seen President Trump move from talking about American carnage to embracing prison reform to saying he’s open to sentencing reform. The scoreboard still says zero, but the yardage is very, very impressive. And nobody thought when Trump first got sworn in that we would even have any bipartisan criminal justice on the table — little, big, tiny — period. This issue can’t take four years off, eight years off, 12 years off, waiting for the perfect person with the perfect motive, with the perfect time, because people’s lives are being spent behind bars. And so you got to take the president that you have. And this is a president who said he wants to be tough but fair. All right, well let’s talk about fair. And that’s really the opening that I see.
Horowitz: Van, I want to push on this just for a minute. So you’re policy guy.
Horowitz: Two days after, I think, Kim was in the White House, Trump comes out and says, “NFL players should suggest people that he should pardon rather than kneel.” A lot of people read that as, again, a political ploy or not the way policy should work in today’s day and age. Do you think that NFL players should take him up on that offer?
Jones: Absolutely do. Listen, every American citizen should be asking this president to use his power in a good way, especially for people behind bars. The only person in the country who can just sign a piece of paper and give someone their freedom in our Constitution is the president of the United States. It doesn’t matter — Republican, Democrat, you agree with him, you disagree with him — it’s in our Constitution, he can do it.
Horowitz: Tell me a little bit about Chris Young — this particular case that you’re working on.
Kardashian West: Yeah. Chris Young. He’s 30 years old, he’s been in for almost nine years for, like, the lowest-level drug charges. He had marijuana and then, in his car, he had crumbs of cocaine that they couldn’t even weigh. So they said it was half of a gram. That’s three pennies worth of cocaine.
Horowitz (voiceover): After our conversation, Kardashian West and Jones went to the White House. Jared Kushner invited them to participate in an off-the-record meeting with a group of about 20 people, which included attorneys, activists and policy experts. The subject of the meeting was how to change our clemency process. Then they met with Trump to discuss the case of Chris Young and lobby for his release. I sat down with them after the meeting, when Young called Kardashian West and his attorney Brittany Barnett from inside a federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky.
Kardashian West: Hey Chris, it’s Kim.
Young: Hey Kim. How are you doing? I’m a little excited from you guys going there and meeting with them.
Kardashian West: Yeah, we — me and Judge Sharp and Van Jones and Ivanka and Jared — went in to go see the president, and that’s when we had our chance, like exactly, like, the same amount of time as what we did, you know, with Alice.
Young: Yes. Yes. I understand. I understand. Two months in here is nothing compared to the years I’ve been in here.
Kardashian West: Yeah.
Horowitz: Hey Chris, this is Jake from Mic. I’m sitting here with a crew. I wondered if you could just sort of speak a little bit about what you would do if you were to get out.
Kardashian West: Or what you’ll do when you get out. Let’s be extra positive.
Young: The main thing I want to do when I get out is finishing sharpening up my coding skills. I’ve learned the syntax to two coding programming languages — one being Python and the other PHP. But I don’t have access to a computer here, so I really only know them theoretically, but I know them well enough that if I was to get some hands-on experience, I could actually code for a living.
Horowitz: What do you want Americans to know about people like you in prison? What would you like to see?
Young: The main thing I would like people to know is that we’re human. We’re not inanimate objects, you know. We’re conscious, we’re sentient beings that should get treated like it. And, unfortunately, everyone in their life makes decisions that could bring about consequences and repercussions.
Horowitz (voiceover): Barnett has successfully advocated for the release of 12 people throughout her career, six of whom were serving life sentences, including Alice Johnson.
Brittany Barnett, co-founder, Buried Alive Project: So Chris is, of all the clients I’ve ever had, the most low-level participant in a drug conspiracy.
Horowitz: What do you mean by that?
Barnett: He was a — had a very minor role in a drug conspiracy, a role so low that the judge said not only was he at the bottom of the totem pole, he was barely even touching it. And what stuck out to me was the fact that he received this mandatory life sentence based on two drug priors. He just so happened to be at the gas station the night the drug leader was being taken down purchasing a small quantity of drugs.
Horowitz (voiceover): Nearly 4,000 people have been sentenced to life without parole in federal prison for drug offenses since 1988. Most of these cases are like Young’s, where a judge was required by law to hand out a mandatory minimum sentence of life. Judge Kevin Sharp told me he was so disturbed by this, he quit the bench because of it.
Kevin Sharp, former federal judge: So there are these things that I don’t know that I quite understood before I took the bench called “mandatory minimum sentences” and Congress has said certain categories of criminals and certain crimes will result in mandatory minimum sentencing and, in Chris’ case, there were enhancements because he had two drug felonies, but minor drug convictions.
Sharp: But he ends up with a mandatory life sentence. This is nuts.
Horowitz: So you knew at the time this is wrong.
Sharp: This is wrong.
Horowitz: So catch us up. This is a few years ago, in 2017.
Sharp: So in 2017, I stepped down from the bench.
Horowitz: And was it over this case in particular that you stepped down or that was just a factor, or?
Sharp: It was kind of a linchpin. There was the whole criminal justice system disturbed me on what we did. If you want me to sit on the bench and just — even if you’re going to let me decide what the sentence is — just churn people through the prison system, that’s not helping.
Horowitz (voiceover): Sharp has teamed up with #Cut50 to fight for broader reform, including the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill focused on re-entry and rehabilitation. The bill is currently stalled in Congress: Hardline Republicans oppose any bill that includes sentencing reform, while some Democrats insist it must include exactly that if they are to pass it.
Jessica Sloan, co-founder, #Cut50: So the bill began by focusing on an incentive system for people who are in prison to be able to get incentive credits for completing programming so that, when they come out, they’re more ready to succeed. Chris is lucky and Alice was lucky they have Kim, but not everybody inside has somebody to advocate for them, and I think that’s why it’s so important to get sentencing reform into the First Step Act, because there are so many Chrises and so many Alices out there who are literally gonna die in prison if we don’t.
Horowitz (voiceover): There’s no guarantee the First Step Act will pass. And, because it’s politically risky, for now Trump has decided to table the issue until after the midterm elections. It’s decisions like this that have led some people to question whether Trump is truly committed to the issue and if he can be trusted.
Kardashian West: I think people do assume that it’s just a phone call and, you know, to be honest, the president has been very vocal that, if people have a specific case that they’re interested in, to reach out and set up a meeting, and he’s definitely open to that as well. So I’m taking advantage of that. When I hear him say that, I make those calls and find cases that are really important and passionate to me.
Jones: Who loses if we decide that, because Trump is so objectionable on 99 other issues, we won’t help the prisoners? The prisoners lose — not the liberal critics, not the people on Twitter. It’s the people behind bars who lose.
Horowitz: So what do you think? Are Kardashian West and Jones doing the right thing? And, if you had the chance, would you also work with President Trump? Comment below and tag a friend to join the conversation. Thank you for watching.
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