A historic breakthrough once thought impossible

Van Jones and other reform advocates set aside their differences and worked together to pass nonpartisan criminal justice reform

Van Jones remembers the hard road to criminal justice reform. “We flatlined seven times… this thing could have broken,” said Jones, a leading reform advocate, who had served previously in the Obama Administration. But he had a committed ally in Stand Together’s Mark Holden, who recalls how they both stuck together through a difficult legislative process. Eventually their advocacy helped make a difference and the FIRST STEP Act became law in 2018.

Not long ago, this partnership would have seemed pretty unlikely. Van and Mark disagree on many issues. And for years, they focused on those disagreements. But after discovering a shared passion for criminal justice reform and a lot of common ground on that issue, they decided not to let their disagreements prevent them from working together.

They had their work cut out for them.

Since the early 2000s, dozens of states have enacted reforms that resulted in fewer prisoners and less crime, backed by lawmakers who span the political spectrum. But DC was deadlocked. The debate over how to fix the criminal justice system in Washington, DC, had become so partisan that neither side wanted to let the other win. Van wouldn’t settle for this, and neither would Mark.

Together, this team of unlikely allies set out to unite a coalition who also shared common ground on criminal justice reform. It eventually came to include everyone from Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries and the ACLU to Republican Sen. Mike Lee and the White House, to name just a few.

In 2018, as our criminal justice system was in desperate need of repair, this coalition worked diligently to help pass historic criminal justice reform legislation. Passing Congress by wide margins—including 87-12 in an otherwise divided U.S. Senate—this once-in-a-generation reform reduced some excessive punishments and expanded access to rehabilitation programs that help people successfully transition back into their communities upon release. And it couldn’t have come soon enough.

It shows what’s possible when people work through their differences and unite with others to do the same. It’s why when it comes to removing public policy barriers, we will unite with anybody to do right, regardless of political party.