A human rights attorney and mentor of Kim Kardashian is speaking out about the reality star’s legal aspirations, saying her high-profile mentee has “really changed the national narrative on criminal justice reform.”
“Because of her, we were able to get sentencing reform attached to the First Step Act, which resulted in thousands of people coming home from federal prisons … [she] made this an issue that both Democrats and Republicans could get behind,” Jessica Jackson told the Law&Crime Network in an interview. The attorney said Kardashian has used her global platform to open the dialogue about prison reform and to spark change.
Kardashian began her apprenticeship program under Jackson in 2019. Just one year earlier, Kardashian lobbied then-President Donald Trump to sign a bill for the First Step Act to assist with inmate job training, drug treatment and lessened mandatory sentences. The bill passed with bipartisan support.
“Not only was she showing it on her show and reaching an audience that had probably never thought about this issue, but she was actually making real progress on the legislative front meeting with legislators,” Jackson said.
Jackson said Kardashian was inspired by the story of Alice Johnson, known colloquially as “Miss Alice.” Johnson was sentenced to life in prison in 1996 for her involvement in a cocaine trafficking organization. Kardashian advocated for Johnson’s sentence to be commuted by President Trump in 2018.
After serving 21 years in prison, Johnson was released in June 2018. The following August, former President Trump gave Johnson a full pardon.
“I’ll never forget her saying, you know, there must be thousands of Miss Alice’s inside. I can’t stop here,” Jackson said of Kardashian. “She started visiting prisons and visiting jails, started getting really involved. And I think the more involved she got, and this is true for anybody who comes to this issue, the more involved she got, the more she saw and the more she understood how unjust our justice system really is.”
Kardashian, who passed the so-called “Baby Bar” exam in 2021, continues to study under Jackson as her journey as an aspiring attorney moves forward. But because she doesn’t have an undergraduate degree, Kardashian must take an unconventional route to become an attorney.
“I will tell you that is a much, much harder path because you’re essentially not just working on cases the whole time, but you don’t have professors,” Jackson said of Kardashian’s studies. “You’re having to learn all of the legal doctrine yourself. You’re having to be self-motivated to crack open these old law books and learn all of the cases. You’re having to figure it out. It’s very, very difficult.”
California is one of just seven states that allows an apprenticeship program where aspiring attorneys can study under a mentor for four years, setting aside a designated amount of time each week to study. The aspiring attorney must then pass the First-Year Law Students’ Examination, or the “Baby Bar,” and eventually the Bar Exam.
“She’s an entrepreneur. She’s a mom. She’s also a law student. She has prioritized this and, you know, especially recently has been kind of doubling down her efforts. So hopefully she’ll be able to set for The Bar in summer of 2024,” Jackson said. “She’s already excited and ready to go and represent folks. And it’ll be interesting to see what she does with her law degree. But she’s certainly very fired up.”
Together, Kardashian and Jackson are working to spread the word about prison reform and create substantial change through lawmakers. And while Kardashian’s legal journey began only three years ago, Jackson’s story began in 2004 when she was just 22 years old. At the time, her husband was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
“He had made a mistake. He had a drug problem. But prison wasn’t going to be the place for him and it wasn’t going to help him get better,” the attorney said. “From that moment, you know, I just got so angry and I wanted to change the system so that nobody would be in the same position we were in. No other family was going to have to go through being ripped apart and financially devastated and all of the pain and emotions that go with having a loved one incarcerated.”
Jackson said that in the United States $166 billion worth of taxpayer dollars are put into the prison system annually. But 68-percent of the time, the lawyer continued, inmates recidivate, meaning they end up back in the prison system after their release.
“There’s just so much genius behind the bars,” Jackson said. “The fact that we just lock people up and discount them because of it and then lock them out of society when they come home and make it hard to find jobs and housing and all of that. It’s just heartbreaking.”
Jackson asserted that a positive plan for prison reform includes three main points: understanding the underlying reason for why a crime is committed; the treatment of people inside jail or prison; and loosening restrictions on parole violations.
“We have a system that just incarcerates people and doesn’t actually address any of the underlying reasons why they committed a crime,” the lawyer said. “A lot of crime is fueled by substance abuse or by a lack of economic opportunities or by mental illness. And we need to address those things. We can’t just put somebody in a cell and hope that they magically get better and then make it hard for them when they reenter.”
Jackson said there is still more progress to be made, but newly passed legislation has created a positive impact on inmate treatment,.
“We were able to ban the shackling of women who were pregnant and in labor inside of prisons and jails in various states in the federal system,” she told the Law&Crime Network. “If you think about that, we as a country shackle pregnant women in labor. Like, how cruel can you get? I’ve been through labor three times. I promise you, nobody is running away during labor, right? You’re not going anywhere. But the amount of trauma that that inflicts upon the woman and the child and the medical risk to both the woman and the child, it’s just absolutely disgusting that we would ever do something like that.”
As for parole, Jackson noted that 40-percent of the inmate population is made up of people who committed a technical or supervision violation of their parole.
“A technical violation is not a new crime. In fact, it is just a violation of a condition. And most of these conditions that are put on people who are on supervision are things I couldn’t even adhere to,” she stated. “Like you can’t be late to a meeting with your probation officer. Do you know how many meetings I’m late to? I was late to this Zoom, to be honest. But that certainly shouldn’t mean that I go to jail.”
Over the last three years, Jackson — the Chief Advocacy and Chief Operating Officer of REFORM Alliances — has helped pass 15 bills in 10 different states, creating a pathway for 650,000 people to get off of probation and parole.
“We’ve got 50 years of data saying that tough on crime does not work,” she said. “We’ve got years of data from the states showing that smart safety solutions do work. Actually addressing the underlying reason why people commit crime does work, and it does get people back on their feet and contributing to society, and it makes all of us safer.”
[Image via Law&Crime Network/YouTube]
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