Jessica Jackson is the co-founder of Cut50, a campaign working to reduce mass incarceration. She has also been working closely with Kim Kardashian West on Kardashian West’s new documentary The Justice Project, where the reality TV star works to help inmates who she believes have been mistreated due to injustices in the U.S. legal system.
As the documentary premieres on Oxygen on April 5, here’s what you need to know about Jackson.
1. Jackson Became Interested in Criminal Justice Reform Because Her First Husband Went to Prison
At the 2020 Television Critics Association winter press tour, Jackson told critics that her whole foray into criminal justice reform started because her husband went to prison when she was quite young.
“As somebody who actually came to this work because my husband was incarcerated, I think there’s millions of people across the country who have a loved one who are inside who see [Kim Kardashian West] and her work on this project and her work on criminal justice reform as a beacon of hope, right? There’s so much stigma. There’s so much shame. I was 22 years old when my husband got sentenced. I didn’t have my law degree back then or even a college degree. And at the time I was so embarrassed I couldn’t even tell anybody he was in prison.”
According to an interview with Marin Magazine, back in 2004, Jackson would drive seven hours from her home in Georgia to Florida with her three-month-old daughter once a month for over a year in order to visit her first husband in prison, where he was incarcerated for non-violent crimes.
According to USA Today, Jacksons then-husband took a plea deal on burglary charges — one that Jackson says was done on bad advice from her husband’s attorney — and ended up serving three and a half years. Even after they divorced, she was so angry over the way her ex-husband had been treated in the criminal justice system that that is what spurred her on to go to law school and start trying to make a difference.
2. She Got to Work Earning Her Degrees
At the time her husband was sentenced, Jackson didn’t even have her high school diploma. She had dropped out of high school and taken the GED exam. But after her husband went to prison, Jackson knew she had to do something. She told USA Today that she moved back in with her mother and told her she was going to become a lawyer, much to her mother’s disbelief.
“I just kinda looked at her and said, ‘Well, I am going to be a lawyer,’” Jackson told the newspaper. “I am going to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else’s family.”
In six years, Jackson graduated from college at the University of South Florida and law school at Santa Clara University School of Law, where she received the inaugural Dean’s Leadership Award for having “consistently demonstrated his or her leadership ability in ways that have had a positive impact on the law school community and beyond” because under Jackson’s leadership, the Santa Clara Law Chapter of the American Constitution Society was named the National Chapter of the Year.
3. Jackson and Van Jones Co-Founded Cut50 in 2015
After graduating, Jackson began working as a human rights attorney at the Habeas Corpus Resource Center in San Francisco, California. It was through this where she met Van Jones, a news commentator who worked in President Obama’s administration. In 2015, they co-founded Cut50, an Oakland-based nonprofit bipartisan organization focused criminal justice reform issues and specifically focusing on reducing America’s incarceration rate by 50 percent.
In her interview with Marin Magazine, Jackson runs down what the group has accomplished so far, including getting both Republican and Democratic congress members and senators to work together on legislation.
“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 had over a dozen sponsors from both the left and the right, including the ACLU and Koch Industries.”
4. She Was Mayor of Mill Valley, California
In addition to her criminal justice and human rights work, in 2013, Jackson became the youngest person ever elected to a city office in Mill Valley, California, then two years later, she was elected mayor of the town that she, her then-second husband Craig, a Mill Valley firefighter, and their two daughters called home until late 2019. Jackson said it’s hard to juggle their schedules sometimes, but it’s so important to her to make it work.
“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,” Jackson told Marin Magazine. “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.”
She also said in addition to her work with Cut50, when she was on the Mill Valley city council, one of her primary issues was getting more affordable housing for their area, which is something that goes hand in hand with anti-recidivism movements.
“I’m really concerned about the lack of affordable housing,” said Jackson. “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.”
In late 2019, Jackson and her daughters moved to the East Coast.
5. Jackson Has Received Numerous Awards for Her Human Rights Work
Throughout her years working on criminal justice reform and human rights, Jackson earned several accolades, including the 2019 American Constitution Society Fearless Advocate Award, and the 2019 Alexander Law Prize from Santa Clara University.
Her work with Cut50 has played an enormous part in earning these different recognitions. Beyond the four cases viewers will see in Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project, Jackson’s organization has established an “empathy network” to connect people across the country who may be able to help each other out.
“Cut50 has what we call the ’empathy network,’ which is over 3,000 formally incarcerated individuals who are leading their own organizations all across the country,” said Jackson at the 2020 TCA winter press tour. “So, beyond these four cases that Kim highlights in The Justice Project, she also gets letters where we can make a phone call to somebody in North Carolina and connect them with an organization or we can talk to somebody in Georgia and, do a little favor like writing a letter of support. So, those things aren’t always shown in the documentary or in her show, but she’s connected to a 3,000-person, an organization network through her work at Cut50, and she’s also worked with other groups on legislation like the First Step Act. I think we had over 160 organizations on both sides of the aisle that got behind that and that we worked with.”
Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project premieres Sunday, April 5 at 7 p.m. ET/PT on Oxygen.
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