Van Jones’ ‘Redemption Project’ brings victims’ families and perpetrators face to face on CNN

Originally posted Wednesday, May 1, 2019 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Maria Lucas meets up with the man Jason Clark who murdered her mother with a knife nearly a quarter century earlier over a $40 drug deal. He describes to her what happened in detail and it’s tragic. 

“I heard her last breath,” Clark tells Lucas. “That’s the thing that will stick with me the longest. That won’t ever go away. That’s when I realized the magnitude of what I had done.” 

Lucas was not angry with him anymore: “We have a bond that not a lot of people can say that they have. You did something terrible a long time ago but that’s not who you are anymore. I wouldn’t be sitting across from you if I truly didn’t feel that way and I know that you are changing in the direction of the life you’re going in.”

He breaks down crying. 

“Pay me back by helping other people,” she says. “Make sure another teenage kid doesn’t end up where you ended up.” And she hugs him. 

This was the first episode of “The Redemption Project with Van Jones,” an unusual CNN series that debuted this past Sunday evening.  Victims and perpetrators face off in person to see if they can find some closure on both sides. 

The crux is simple. The emotional complexities are often overwhelming.

“It’s a passion project,” said Jones - a regular CNN commentator - in an interview. “I feel we are losing the capacity as a culture for grace, compassion and forgiveness. It’s not all about ‘cancel’ culture and ‘call out’ culture and ‘I’m going to block you’ culture.”

Jones - , a social justice advocate who has started several non-profit groups and runs the Reform Alliance focused on criminal justice - sees “Redemption Project” as a soothing remedy to that. He and skilled facilitators in the field of what’s called “restorative justice” encourage both sides to listen to the other and give the murderer a chance to make amends. 

For many years, this type of meeting has been done at a juvenile justice level. The young shoplifter meets with the shop owner to understand why what he did hurts the shop owner, Jones said. “It’s now being used in some states in a much more serious context,” he said. 

He was able to find some great cases, enough for eight episodes, though Jones said it wasn’t easy to get both sides willing to do this on camera. He also had to ensure neither side had met before because he wanted that meeting captured on film.

The results, Jones said, varied widely and were hard to predict from the outset. 

In two of the eight cases, the surviving parent was not able to get to a “warm and fuzzy place” with the person who killed their child. “At the same time, they still got information and answers they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise,” he said.

In three situations, the survivors embraced the felon’s amends, either becoming their mentors or helping them get their sentences reduced. 

“It’s very humbling to see people engaging in really Olympic levels of moral courage,” Jones said. “The moral courage to walk into a prison and sit down with the person who took your child’s life. At the same time, to be someone who did something terrible and be able to leave your cell and walk down and look that person in the eye and say, ‘I’m deeply sorry.’ I’ve learned how far I have to go in my own development to be that kind of person. I’m still mad at people from third grade!” 

Jones was also humbled that CNN gave him the 9 p.m. Sunday slot, the one held for years by the late Anthony Bourdain. “That’s sacred ground for CNN,” he said. “It’s an emotional thing. It’s a powerful thing. It gives us a sense that they understood the import of this show. I hope people will give it a chance. It’s both a heartbreaking show and a very healing one.” 

CNN last year gave Jones a bi-weekly talk show on the weekend. He recently had Kim Kardashian on to talk about her desire to be an attorney and her own efforts at criminal justice reform. 

This was the second time he talked to her after interviewing her after she visited the White House to discuss prison reform. 

“Kim Kardashian is no longer some teen-age party girl with Paris Hilton,” Jones said. “She’s now a mom of three and soon-to-be four African-American kids. She’s the daughter of a very significant attorney in American life. And she’s working her butt off on a bunch of cases. She is very very tenacious. She has a very sharp brain.

And while her husband Kanye West has gotten flack for meeting with Donald Trump, Kardashian has been less affected. 

“The difference is he hasn’t worked on anything legislatively,” Jones said. “Kim probably doesn’t support Trump politically but she is lobbying on important issues and is being seen differently. She’s gotten people out of prison. People are walking free because of her. Not many people can say that.”

ON TV

“Redemption Project With Van Jones,” 9 p.m. Sundays, CNN

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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