“What are you doing here?”
That was the question posed to Van Jones at the right-wing Conservative Political Action Conference in the opening of “The First Step,” a documentary directed and produced by brothers Brandon and Lance Kramer.
The film, which is streaming now on AmazonPrime and VUDU, follows Jones, a former Obama White House advisor and CNN political commentator, and Jessica Jackson, an attorney and co-founder of an advocacy group then known as #cut50, as they worked on drumming up bipartisan support that led to the passage of the 2018 First Step Act, one of the most significant criminal justice reforms in decades.
The thrust of the film’s action — the journey of the First Step Act from its genesis in Congress to the desk of a divisive Republican president — is captured in dramatic fashion. Jones and his team held controversial face-to-face meetings with Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner, among other allies, drawing criticism from a range of figures on the left. The filmmakers home in on this fraught dynamic, raising questions about the bargains one must make to get laws passed in a deeply polarized society.
“We knew it would be perilous but very important to document,” said producer Lance Kramer, in an interview with Prison Journalism Project. “We were all a little surprised by how much conflict there was from both political parties.”
Among other things, the bill sought to expand early-release programs and, crucially, to modify unjust sentencing laws that landed people in federal prison for years for non-violent drug crimes. But the bill took heat from both sides. It was criticized by progressives as not going far enough to solve the problem of mass incarceration, and vilified by conservatives for showing too much leniency on drug crimes.
Throughout the film, Jones pleaded, sometimes on literal bended knee, to lawmakers for their support passing the bill, and negotiated the process with Kushner. He also leaned on the support of celebrities like beauty-brand empress Kim Kardashian, who in recent years has taken up the mantle of criminal justice reform advocate.
In a masterful ploy to bring two opposing views to the table, Jones met with a delegation of California liberals and West Virginia conservatives to talk about substance use and the sentencing reform provisions put forth in the bill. The conversations were meaningful and productive, but also tense and often difficult. The cohort eventually visited Washington, D.C., to discuss the First Step Act with Trump officials.
Kramer explained that Jones wanted to find the smallest common ground. “We wanted some progress on prison reform in the country amid rollbacks by the Trump administration, and that meant bringing people together,” he said.
Initially derided by progressives as not being bold enough to change the system, provisions were added to the bill before it reached the Senate. Among the inclusions were a reduction in the profoundly consequential sentencing disparities between crimes involving crack cocaine and crimes involving powder cocaine.
But the message of reform was lost at times in the controversy surrounding the bill. Jones was panned, often in dehumanizing terms, on social media, and the effects of all this on him received careful attention from the filmmakers. But the sheer gumption of creating a bipartisan policy in the Trump administration made Jones and Jackson look like justice superheroes, especially as they continued to weather personal attacks.
As a recovering addict who served time for my substance use disorder, it inspired me to see how the reform advocates carried the weight of a divided nation in my name and the names of other incarcerated Americans, never retreating from the backlash.
The film spends much time painting an intimate portrait of Jones’ internal struggles and isolation as he tried to pass legislation that would bring thousands of incarcerated people home early. At times, he seemed like a pariah to everyone but his family.
In this respect, the filmmakers did an impressive job addressing a crucial question: Is there a fundamental misunderstanding about Van Jones?
Many politicians, activists and pundits criticized Jones for his efforts to fix parts of a broken criminal legal system, but how many of them had the courage to take a risk and break bread with their adversary for a moral cause?
In December 2018, President Trump, surrounded by Jones, Jackson, and everyone who made the legislation possible, signed the First Step Act into law. On a hard metal bench inside a correctional institution in Florida, I watched it on TV, grateful to have advocates working on my behalf.
And no matter how loud the bill’s opponents were, no matter how trivial and petty those people were who didn’t seek solutions but just pointed crooked fingers, the result was that more than 3,000 people have been freed from federal prison.
“Advocates fighting for change have a vision of how the world can look better,” said Kramer about the team’s victory. “But the process to get there can be messy and ugly.”
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.