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Podcast / November 01 2022

Negotiating a criminal justice bill across party lines

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Criminal justice advocates have tried for decades to pass legislation to reduce the United States prison population. Yet somehow, at a moment when the United States felt more polarized than ever, lawmakers managed to agree on a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill during Donald Trump’s presidency. It was called the First Step Act and it reduced the sentences of thousands of incarcerated people in federal prisons.

This week, we talk to Jessica Jackson, a lawyer and one of the key advocates for the First Step Act. She and political commentator Van Jones co-founded the group #Cut50, which helped advocate for the legislation. In this episode, Jackson tells host Jenn Williams how she convinced politicians from both parties to support the bill.

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Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.




From Doha Debates and Foreign Policy, welcome to The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams. 


This week on the show, we hear about the negotiations that led to the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill passed during the Trump administration. It’s important to note that both Republicans and Democrats have pursued policies and passed laws that contributed to mass incarceration in the United States, though conservatives are generally more associated with calls for tough-on-crime policies. But at a moment when the United States was more polarized than it had been in decades under Trump, somehow progressives and conservatives managed to come together and agree on a big criminal justice reform bill. 


That happened in part because of the hard work of Jessica Jackson. She’s a lawyer and an activist who advocates for cutting the US prison population by 50 percent over the next decade. Her group was called, appropriately enough, #Cut50. She helped lead the talks on prison reform with members of the Trump White House. For Jackson, the work was really personal. When she was 22, her husband was sent to prison for a drug-related offense.



And I just remember, you know, going to the courtroom with him that day—and my two-month-old—and we had no idea I’d be leaving without him. He took off his ring, and he grabbed his wallet out of his pocket and he handed me a cell phone. And I just watched the bailiffs take him away. And I just remember being completely stunned. And I thought, “There’s no way that this is the right thing.” And then I showed up at the prison a couple of months later when we finally could go visit him. And I looked around, and I just remember seeing so many families like mine there in the visiting room. And I realized, like, this wasn’t a mistake. This is how it works. Especially if you have a public defender and you don’t have resources. Right? So I think at that point, I went home. And I’d gotten my GED, I’d sort of spent a couple of years partying, like, nobody really thought I was going to be serious. But I remember going home and talking to my mom and she was like, “What are you going to do next?” And I said, “I’m going to be a public defender, because I don’t want this to happen to anybody else’s family.”


JENN: And that’s what Jackson did. She went to college and then law school, and then she represented people on death row. And then she heard Van Jones was speaking at an event in her hometown of Mill Valley, California. Now, if you’re a big American news junkie, you might recognize Van Jones as a left-wing CNN commentator. Earlier in his career, though, he’d been involved in criminal justice reform. So the two of them talked, and then they met. And that’s how #Cut50 came about.


JESSICA: So I sat down for breakfast with him, and we just kind of started spitballing all these ideas. And we started writing things down on a little napkin there, and I remember Van, who had just recently started working with CNN, telling us he was trying out for, for a show called Crossfire. And so we have this whole napkin full of ideas and stuff. And he goes back to DC, and he is sitting on set—he got the job on Crossfire—he’s sitting on set with a man named Newt Gingrich. And so I guess Newt and him were, you know, talking during the commercials. And by the way, the entire show is just him and Newt arguing.


JENN: Right. 




JENN: Just shouting at each other, essentially. [JENN AND JESSICA LAUGH] Right.


JESSICA: That’s, like—the purpose of the show is that they don’t see eye to eye on any topic out there. And then I guess, during a commercial break, they probably just wanted to find something to talk about, right? Because how do you go from, like, shouting at somebody to just quietly sitting next to them? So Van brings up, you know, what he’s working on. And he’s like, “OK, I—I just started this organization, #Cut50, with a couple of, like, Bay Area lawyer activists. And, you know, we’re working on criminal justice reform.” And Newt—you know, Newt played a pivotal role in the ’94 crime bill. So in some ways, he is part of the architecture of mass incarceration. He was the Speaker of the House at the time. And so he’s listening to Van talk. And he said, “Van, you’re missing the entire picture. You’re—you’re failing to communicate this to me as a conservative.” He’s like, “I agree with you that we need to close prisons,” and Van’s, like, totally taken aback. He’s like, “What? We agree on something?” And he’s like, “Yeah, but I agree for different reasons. I’m a fiscal conservative. I don’t like big, bloated government systems that have no accountability and no transparency. And I’m a Christian. I believe in redemption. I know I have colleagues who are libertarians who don’t believe in government overreach, right? When you’re talking to conservatives, that’s what you need to be focused on.” And so from that, we decided to co-host with Newt the first bipartisan summit on criminal justice reform. We had about 800 participants. It was co-hosted by Van and Newt. And I remember closing my eyes at one point, and I was just listening and I’m like, “This is so wild, because I can’t even tell if it’s a Republican or a Democrat speaking.”


JENN: We’re going to hear more of my interview with Jessica Jackson. But just to clarify one thing, she mentions the term “sentencing reform” a lot. That mostly means reducing the amount of time that prisoners need to remain in US prisons. OK. Here’s my conversation with Jessica Jackson about the First Step Act, which was signed into law in 2018.


JENN: It will…maybe come as a bit of a shock to some of our listeners to hear that Jared Kushner was actually a big advocate for criminal justice reform in the Trump administration. Jared Kushner, senior White House advisor to Donald Trump, also his son-in-law. But Kushner’s dad was in prison for about a year himself. So he did experience what it was like having a family member behind bars. So eventually, your group was invited to a meeting with Jared Kushner about prison reform. So first, tell me: where were you when you got the invitation, and, like, what was your reaction to that?


JESSICA [LAUGHS]: So I was sitting in, in our office at the time, Marin City, and Van just called me, and he said, “You’re not going to believe who reached out to me.” And I’m like, “Uhh…who now?” [JESSICA AND JENN LAUGHS] Like, what other craziness could this possibly be? And honestly, I was thinking it’d be like Oprah or like, you know, somebody like that. And he’s like, “Jared Kushner.” And I’m like, “Oh God.” Like, “Is Van—is Van in trouble?” [CHUCKLES] I’m like, ‘Well, what did Jared want?” And he’s like, “He wants to meet with us.” I’m like, “OK….” Like, I’m so skeptical, right? So I’m like, “All right.” He’s like, “Let’s have a call with him and just see what he says.” And I’m like, “OK.” 


So we had a call with Jared, and he started the call talking about the impact of his dad’s incarceration on him. And when I was listening to him speak, I’m like, “Oh my God—that’s exactly what my experience was like.” Right? Like, the feeling of hopelessness and helplessness, and not being able to walk out those doors with your loved one, right? Like you’re so happy to get to that visit and to see them and, like, relieved, and then there’s this moment where, like, you know, of course you’re processing in and you’re going through the metal detector and you’re being searched and you hear them called “inmate.” And that’s not their name, right? Like they’re “Dad,” they’re, you know, your husband, they’re, you know—and, and, and that’s so disheartening. And then, you know, I remember with my ex-husband, like, I would, you know, want to kiss him, or our daughter would want to go sit in his arms. And there was men with guns standing there saying like, “No, you can’t have contact.” Right? And so Jared had very much had a similar experience, and I could tell it had a lasting impact on him. So when we got off, off of the phone, Jared had invited us to come to DC and be part of a big bipartisan meeting. And I asked Van, I was like, “Do you really think this is a good idea?” And this is right after Steve Harvey had gone to the White House and, like, essentially been, you know, canceled for being seen with Trump. And I just remember Van saying something that stuck with me for, for—you know, ever since. And he said, “Listen, Jessica.” He’s like, “There’s going to be a lot of people who don’t like it, and I’m going to catch a lot of hate for this. But my worst day on Twitter is better than anybody’s best day in prison.”


JENN: Mmm.


JESSICA: And that just made me realize, you know, we had to try everything we could. And if that meant walking into the Trump White House and reaching across the aisle and working with Jared Kushner, you know, that was what needed to be done. And I’m, I’m thankful that we did.


JENN: First, I just want you to bring me inside the meeting, like, the meeting itself. Where was it? Was it at the White House?


JESSICA: OK, we’re—yeah, we’re in the Roosevelt Room. [LAUGHS]


JENN: OK, so you’re in the Roosevelt Room. Take me inside. What was the meeting like?


JESSICA: You know, it was a little bit tense at first, because everybody’s like, “What is going to happen here?” And we’re just talking through, kind of, where we had come from. You know, Jared talked again about his dad and his experiences. And, you know, the folks who were impacted at the table talked about their experiences. And I think the meeting ended up being successful. And, and I will say, there’s—no matter who is in power, no matter what administration it is, you’re in the freakin’ White House, right? Like—




JESSICA [LAUGHS]: So there’s something exciting about being inside of the White House. And everybody felt it.


JENN: And was it just Jared in there from, from the administration? I mean, I’m sure he had his, like, aides and staff, but was there anyone else? Was—like, did Trump pop his head in? Did Ivanka walk by? [JESSICA LAUGHS] Like, was it just Jared’s project?


JESSICA: It was Jared’s project at the time. And it’s funny, because you say “I’m sure he had his staff and aide.” It was really just him and, and Cassidy Dumbauld, who now is Cassidy Luna. She was there staffing him.


JENN: How did you feel coming out of the meeting? Like, did you feel like, “Oh my God. We might actually be able to do something here?” Or were you just like, “OK, that was—” [CHUCKLES] not to be a pun, but—“that was the first step?” [CHUCKLES]




JENN: Did you—yeah, how did you feel just, like, walking out of there? Was it, like, a relief? I want to know.


JESSICA: Coming out of the first meeting, I was hopeful. I was glad we were involved, but I think I knew how much work it was going to end up being in order to bring the left along. And in order for it to be worth our time, it was going to have to include sentencing reforms. And, you know, we had seen draft after draft come through, and it just wasn’t, you know—it was things like allowing people a little more visit or a little more phone time in exchange for, you know, taking educational classes and, and completing programming. Which is great, and, you know, every step of the way, I would stop and think like, “OK, if this was my loved one who was inside, still, how would I feel about that?” Right? But it also was such a far cry from where we had been with the previous three bills that we had been working on under the Obama administration. And frankly, you know, it felt very unfair, because the last version of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act had actually passed the House. Like Paul Ryan had moved it. It was bipartisan, but Mitch McConnell just wouldn’t move it. So it felt a little crazy for them to be starting from scratch, and starting from such a lower point. 


The thing I didn’t know was how much of that work we were going to have to do without any real support on the left, and how fractured the left was going to become. And I think, you know, that was sort of a, a personal disappointment-slash-trauma for me, and for Van and for everybody on our team, because these are folks that we respected and that, you know, we agree with. Like, I agree with everything the ACLU says about—about prison reform, right? So to not have them fighting alongside us, and not be friendly, and have all this crazy back-and-forth on Twitter and have, you know, these fractured relationships—it was really hard, personally and professionally.


JENN: Tell me more about that. What—what, specifically, were Democrats or progressives—I know, you know, that we—I think we mentioned that the House version of the First Step Act didn’t include reduced sentences. And so I know, like, Democratic senators pushed back really hard on that, and a lot of progressives. Was that what it was? Was that in particular? Or were there other issues? Or was it just that you were working with the administration?


JESSICA: Yeah, so I think—I think it was a little bit of both, right? So we had a strategy internally. And unfortunately, the thing about working on these bills is, like, normally you’ve got a plan, and it’s a plan you can tell zero people. [CHUCKLES] Because you don’t want it getting out there, right? So I’ve, I’ve run into this situation in the States since then, as well, where, you know, we believed—and I remember sitting down with Holly Harris, who is a blonde southern Republican from Kentucky. I went and visited her in Louisville, and we sat and ate the biggest cinnamon bun I’ve ever, in my life, seen, and talked about this bill and what she really thought was possible, because she had worked for Mitch McConnell. And I remember her and I talking about the strategy, and it was just like—it was a Republican House at the time, Republican Senate, but we just needed to get it through the House. Right? So once we got it through the House, we knew that it was going to, you know, be paired up against the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. There was going to have to be a real negotiation, and we were going to be able to get some sentencing reforms into it. But we just had to get that little rock rolling down the hill so we could build a little more momentum and turn it into a boulder that could quash the Tom Cottons and Ted Cruzes of the world—


JENN: Sure.


JESSICA: —and make it where we had an environment we could bring these sentencing reforms in. But in the meantime, you know, we couldn’t say that to anybody. “Oh, we’re just going to pass this bill, and then we’re going to make it better.” Because then the Republicans in the House weren’t going to vote for it. So we would walk into, you know, meetings with members, and walk out and see, like, the ACLU and, like, these—these organizations I respect so much, walking in to, to tell them, “Don’t vote for this bill.” And then Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker and Congressman John Lewis sent out a letter to the House and said, “Don’t vote for this bill. It’s going to do more harm than good, because it doesn’t include these sentencing reforms.” And I remember I was just crushed, like: John Lewis? John Lewis is against us? Right? Like, I love him! What? I’m like, OK, well, you know, in some ways it’s good, because they’re holding the line and that means, you know, this is just not going to pass the Senate until there’s actually some sentencing reforms that are dropped into it.


JENN: More on those sentencing reforms after the break. 




JENN: Welcome back to The Negotiators, a production of Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. I’m Jenn Williams. 


Before the break, we heard how Jessica Jackson’s and Van Jones’s group, #Cut50, navigated being the main progressive group advocating for the First Step Act. This was a bill championed by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor. Now, both Jessica Jackson and Van Jones actually share the full story of these negotiations in the upcoming documentary The First Step


Anyway, one element of this bill was something called “good time credits.” Basically, if incarcerated people participated in certain programs in prison, they could get time reduced from their sentences. You’re about to hear more about that. And just a warning: there’s a somewhat graphic description of a miscarriage toward the middle of this section. Now, back to Jackson, and her effort to convince politicians from both parties to support the First Step Act.


JENN: #Cut50 has, I guess, what you call an “empathy network” of folks who have been impacted by the criminal justice system, who tell their stories essentially to, to create change, to change people’s minds or to, I guess, you know, let people hear their perspectives. You have a lot of experience doing that, yourself, personally. So I’m curious, from your perspective, like, how do you advise people to share their personal stories?


JESSICA: Yeah, I mean, I’m going to say honestly, it’s folks in the movement who’ve been impacted that taught me how to talk about what I’d gone through. You know, I, I don’t feel at all that I’ve had to—had to coach anybody. They’re the leaders. They’re the true champs, and they’re the ones that really have courage. The first time I ever talked about my story publicly was at that bipartisan summit. 


I remember one meeting in particular where the storytelling of an impacted person made all the difference. Early on, we went to the Hill with Jared Kushner and Van and Jim DeMint and others. [LAUGHS] And we met with the Problem Solvers Caucus. And I brought with me a guy who was our policy associate at the time, Michael Mendoza. And he was in a suit and he was all, you know, nicely dressed. But Michael himself had served many years inside a prison. In fact, he had been incarcerated since he was, you know, 15. And he was part of a, a, a crime that led to the death of somebody. So he had a homicide charge. And you know, Michael is just super-smart on policy and, and super-friendly. And he’s chatting with all these legislators. And we go and we sit down, and the chairs are arranged—the desks are arranged kind of in a, a square. I’m sitting up by Jared and Van, and Michael’s across from me. And Michael’s sitting next to this legislator, and I can’t remember who it was, but they had been a prosecutor before. So this guy, he stands up and he’s like, “I don’t know about this. You know, we want to do some stuff that’ll make us safer, but we can’t let it—we can’t let any of those violent offenders get out. We can’t let them get any of this programming. You can’t let murderers or anybody who’s committed a violent crime get any sort of benefit out of this.” And I remember looking up, and I felt so terrible in that moment for having told Michael to sit there. Right? Because I’m like, “Oh, this poor guy.” But Michael just had this look on his face. And he kind of raises his hand. And Van says, “Hey, Michael, go ahead.” And he just turns and looks right at this guy, who just minutes before was chatting away with him, and he said, “You’re talking about me. I went to prison for murder.” And the guy was totally blown away.


JENN: Wow.


JESSICA: And I remember, just like—I, I was so proud of Michael. Like, tears came to my eyes. I was like, “Oh, my God.” I can’t—even now. I’m, like, emotional thinking about it, because what courage is that? To stand up in a room where people, literally, are sitting there talking so bad about you and jumping to these assumptions, and make a statement like that? And, you know, that just changed the whole tone of that meeting. It changed everything that people were thinking. And suddenly the Problem Solvers Caucus was a little bit more open to the idea of letting some of these reforms apply to people who were in there for violent crimes.


JENN: That’s incredible. I can’t imagine that level of dignity and honesty— 




JENN: Good for him for, for speaking up. So speaking of changing lawmakers’ minds, can you tell me about one of the meetings where you were able to change a lawmaker’s mind?


JESSICA: So I do remember being inside of one legislator’s office and, and his lege director was just sitting there giving me the worst time, and telling me his boss was going to vote against it. And we really needed all the Democrats. You know, I needed to be able to show Mitch McConnell that we had enough votes to get this bill passed. And I remember just finally, something—you know, I’m being nice; I’m trying to, you know, storytell. We’ve got somebody in there who had been impacted who’s sharing her story. We’re just really trying to convince them every which way we can. And finally, I just looked at him and I’m like, “OK, so you’re telling me that when this bill goes up for a vote, your boss is going to go vote ‘no’ and say that he believes we should continue shackling women while they’re in labor?” And his eyes got wide. I’m like, “Because that’s the meme I’m making.” [JESSICA AND JENN LAUGH] And he’s like, “I—I didn’t say that. Uh—I need to go talk to him.” And he ended up voting “yes.” [JESSICA LAUGHS]


JENN: Wow. That’s incredible. I mean, you know, if you got to threaten them with a meme, threaten them with a meme. You got to do what you got to do. [JENN LAUGHS]


JESSICA: You got to do what you got to do. Exactly.


JENN: As you said, you know, as you mentioned, the reduced sentencing did eventually go into the Senate version. According to the film The First Step, which is coming out in early 2023, you mention in the film that getting the reduced sentencing in the Senate version required progressives pushing back, but also, quote, “It took us, who got it through the House, to break the logjam.” So, tell me what you mean by that. What exactly did you do to break the logjam?


JESSICA: So when I said that in the movie, what I meant is we had to get a bill—even if it wasn’t the final bill—we had to get a bill through the House in order to build that momentum where it could even come to the Senate. And frankly, we had to get a great vote in the House, right? We had to show that this was wildly popular with Republican legislators in order to have the momentum we needed and the leverage we needed in the Senate to really force Mitch McConnell to put it on the floor, and to really force, you know, the Republicans to let some of these sentencing reforms come in.


JENN: So the days leading up to the Senate vote, as you said, it was, like, down to the wire. Besides threatening people with memes— [JESSICA CHUCKLES] what else were you guys doing in, like, the last hours? Like, what were you—what were you doing? Who were you meeting with? Who were you negotiating with to move the needle? Like, who were some of the stickiest votes that you had to, to meet with? Just take me inside those last final days and hours.


JESSICA: There were a lot of moderate Republicans at the time who were kind of up in the air. We were able to get Ted Cruz on the bill. Unfortunately, that came with making an amendment that led to several groups of people being excluded from receiving extra time credits through the programming. So that was—that was a heartbreaking day for me. In the last few days, we hit this just incredible roadblock, and that was that as soon as Mitch McConnell filed cloture, Tom Cotton filed a series of amendments. And these were terrible amendments. I will say, I personally cannot stand Tom Cotton. He is—has every belief that I am against. But I will say he is—he is very smart. And the way him and his staff had crafted these amendments made it hard for even Democrats to vote against them. Like, there was one that was like a victim’s notification. So if you were a victim of a crime, if your person was coming home early, you would get a say-so in, in the process. And so we actually had to scramble quite a bit, because there was a bunch of Republicans who just frankly told us, “We’re going to have to vote ‘yes’ on these amendments. Like, the optics of these amendments—we can’t vote ‘no.’” And the amendments essentially would have gutted a lot of the, the good that the bill did. 


We scrambled at the last minute. We reached out to the victims’ rights groups that we had been working with, crime survivors we had been working with, and we were actually able to get a letter from them, which Senator Dick Durbin read on the Senate floor, imploring people to vote against these amendments. These were not amendments that were on behalf of victims of crime. You know, he was essentially exploiting them and using their, their pain and suffering to try and further his political goals. And thankfully, we defeated those amendments. But I just remember watching—and he’s, like, on his cell phone, standing on the Senate floor—and I’m watching on the computer and just watching as we defeated them. And that was kind of the last hump that we had to get over. 


And then they took their vote, and it was 87 to 11. And Lindsey Graham had actually gone to Afghanistan, or it would have been 88. So it just was such an emotional time watching that vote come in. And I just started bawling. I was crying. And I had actually left DC, because it was almost Christmas. I’d left DC and gone down to Atlanta for the day to see my father. And the vote, you know, happened so quickly. And then first thing the next morning, I hopped on a plane, and I brought Pamela Winn, who had worked with us on this bill and stood up to a lot of people who criticized the bill, because she was personally impacted. And I flew up to Atlanta with her and my three-year-old, of course, because she was with me all the time. [JENN LAUGHS] And Pam and I went and watched the vote. And I’ll say, having Pam right there next to me made it even more emotional, because Pam had gone to prison for health care fraud. And when she went to prison, she was five months pregnant. And she was going one day to get on the bus, but back then they were still shackling women who were pregnant. And she tripped over her shackles, and she fell on her stomach. And when she fell on her stomach, it caused a miscarriage. 


JENN: Oh, God.


JESSICA: And so she went back to her cell, and she laid on her bed, and she was miscarrying her baby, and calling for help and calling for help. And they weren’t taking her into the hospital. They—you know, she was bleeding everywhere. And finally they go to take her in the hospital. And when they did, the doctor said, you know, “Do you have the—the baby?” Basically, like, “Did you bring the baby with you?” And of course she couldn’t have. She’s still in handcuffs and shackles at that point. But everybody looked at the, the correctional officers, and they said, “No, we threw it in the trash.” 


JENN: Oh. God.


JESSICA: Yeah. So her story had just—and her voice, and everything she had done—had just been so essential to us being able to get those provisions in to protect women who were in prison and to, to ban this terrible practice. And I think even beyond that, even beyond the women’s provisions, you know, they just were so illustrative of how little dignity, just basic human dignity and care, there was in the system that—you know, stories like hers, and especially hers, had moved so many legislators on the Hill on this. 


And so I’m sitting right next to her. And Karen Bass was actually on the floor as they were about to take the final House vote, because, remember, the bill passed as one version in the House, went over to the Senate, got better. It had to come back over to the House and go through on concurrence. And Karen Bass starts talking about Pam Winn’s story. She doesn’t use her name, but she starts talking about her story. And I just remember Pam, like, sobbing, and she’s like, “Oh my God, I made a difference,” you know, like, “I actually made a difference.” So we all went out, you know, we watched the vote. We watched it pass. We all went out in the hallway. Everybody’s crying and hugging. And, you know, it’s like the craziest group of people. It’s Van, it’s, you know, David Safavian from the American Conservatives Union. [JENN LAUGHS] It’s Tim Head from Faith and Freedom. It’s, like, Holly Harris, who’s, you know—again, a blonde Republican soccer mom from Kentucky. Like, it’s people who never in a million years should have been in political alignment with each other, at that time especially. But we were. And here we all are, you know, holding hands and praying and, and crying tears of, of just, sheer happiness that finally having gotten this thing through.


JENN: So it passes.




JENN: Finally, after all of this. And you were actually standing in the group alongside President Donald Trump when he signed the bill into law. 


JESSICA: Yeah, yeah—


JENN: What was that like?


JESSICA: Oh, man. [JESSICA AND JENN LAUGH] Well, in true Trump fashion, nothing could be like, you know, normal White House. [LAUGHS] So I was honored to get the invite to come. And Trump, of course, comes in and sits down, and there’s this great group, and we’re all there cheering on prison reform. And he, like, starts to talk about building the wall. And I’m just like, “Oh, God, no, no, no, no. Why?” And Alveda King is there. And—you know, she starts chanting, “Build the wall! Build the wall!” And I’m like, “OK.” So—there’s a picture, and I know exactly what moment this picture was taken, that I have, where I’m just kind of standing there with, like, a…”OK!” face on my face. But luckily they moved on from that. And I look across, and Van’s, like, across the group for me. And again, Van’s, like, always, like, so charming and, like—he’s always forward-thinking. And I just see him reach over, like, a crowd of people, and reach his hand down as the president holds up the pen he just signed the bill with. And Van, like, grabs the pen. [LAUGHS] And puts it in his pocket. And I’m like, “Ah, OK. All right. So Van got the pen.” So they hand out, you know, Sharpies at the time—they weren’t pens. They hand out Sharpies to the whole group and everything. So we kind of had, like, you know—they weren’t the actual Sharpie. And I get in the, the car with Van as we’re leaving the White House. We walk out of the White House, we’re leaving the White House. I’m finally going back to my family, you know, with a couple of days left before Christmas. And we’re sitting in the car, and Van just looked at me, and he’s, he’s like, “Where’s your pen?” So I pull out my pen and he pulls out his pen, and I was like, “Yeah, well, yours is the real one.” And he just switched the two pens. And he’s like, “You deserve this.” So I still have the Sharpie that Trump used to sign the bill.


JENN: I was going to ask you, did you get a pen? [JENN AND JESSICA LAUGH] And my question is just dead now, because oh my God, that’s an incredible story. What did you learn from all of this, from, from the First Step Act, from, you know, from all of this negotiation? You know, what do you think is required to negotiate actual real bipartisan legislation? Like, what did you learn about that?


JESSICA: I think it all starts with the people. I think you have to put the, the politics to the side. And that’s what I learned, really, from that first encounter with Jared, from that first meeting that we had from, you know, all the work we did on the Hill. You know, it was, it was focused on the people. And I think both Van and Jared—who, you know, really was the architect, political architect, behind the First Step Act—you know, I think both of them stressed that to us over and over again. “Just focus on the people, focus on the people who are going to be impacted.” So I think it starts with—for me, every negotiation sets aside the solution. Like, I can’t just come in and talk about a policy solution with somebody. I’ve got to get a sense of where they personally are on this. And we’ve got to understand, you know, what is their perspective? Because I don’t know who I’m negotiating with, right? Like, maybe I’m talking to somebody whose mother was killed. Maybe I’m talking to somebody who, themself, was the victim of a crime. Maybe I’m talking to somebody who, themself, had an addiction. I don’t know. Right? So it’s good to understand, you know, what are your personal experiences with this? 


When you have such different perspectives, unless you really sit down and share your perspectives, and kind of build common ground there and use empathy to understand where each other are coming from…. And it’s the same way in the criminal justice system. You know, when we were coming in there and the people who had been impacted were sharing their stories, I was sharing my story. And we were able to, you know, really share perspectives and then identify together the solutions that would work. And I think that’s my big takeaway, that that is how you can build real buy-in into policy solutions, and how you can identify real solutions that are going to work long-term.


JENN: You just heard from Jessica Jackson, co-founder of #Cut50. She’s currently the chief advocacy officer at the Reform Alliance. The First Step Act ended up helping thousands of people get early releases from federal prison, particularly those convicted of crack cocaine offenses before 2010. It also reduced the length of minimum sentences. 


We first found out about Jessica Jackson through a documentary called The First Step, which tells the full story behind these negotiations. The First Step is coming to US theaters in early 2023. 


The Negotiators is a partnership between Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. Our production team includes Rob Sachs, Rosie Julin, Claudia Teti, Japhet Weeks, Jigar Mehta, Amjad Atallah and Dan Ephron. Laura Rosbrow-Telem is the show’s senior producer. Thanks to Nelufar Hedayat, Govinda Clayton and James Wolley for helping create the show. Special thanks to Chris Tsakis, who recorded Jessica’s interview. 


Foreign Policy is a magazine of news and ideas from around the world, and we encourage you to subscribe. Just go to Doha Debates is a production of Qatar Foundation, where the most urgent issues of our time are discussed and debated. Tune in at


On the next episode, we hear about the conflict in Libya and a group of leaders who are trying to find a peaceful solution.



On a micro level, young Libyans are able to make a difference. What brings me hope is that all these genuine people are not going to go to waste, and that is the purpose of our life.


JENN: That episode, coming up on The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams.