Episode 2: How We Make Radical Changes In America's Justice System

Transcript, Web links and Credits below.


Shaun King: It’s Monday, April 1 st and on our very first episode I want to tell you about three people determined to dismantle the systems and structures of mass incarceration from the inside out. Every single one of us want change, but I need to tell you who’s fighting for it and how we can join them.

As everybody else talks about Trump, the Mueller report, and Jussie Smollett, we’re going in a different direction. We’re not just here to change the news – we’re here to change the world. This daily news podcast is not a repeat of what you’ve already heard somewhere else. I’m here to skip past the BS and tell you what you need to hear with the color, nuance, context, and passion that our news deserves.

This is Shaun King and you are listening to (THE BREAKDOWN)


Can you name a single person killed by police so far in 2019? Just one. Without Googling it. Most of us can’t. But it’s not because American police have become non-violent – it’s because news organizations – liberal and conservative alike – no longer cover police violence like they did in 2014, 2015, or even in 2016. Now, they primarily cover Donald Trump 24/7. It’s good for business and that’s what news companies really are – businesses – designed for profit – and Trump is good for their bottom line.

But 2019 is on pace to be the deadliest year ever measured for police violence. It’s on pace to be the worst year ever measured for hate crimes. And the crisis of mass incarceration is worse than ever. We often use the wrong number when we talk about how many people are incarcerated in this nation. You’ll hear people say we have 2.5 million locked up in this country

– which at any given time is technically true, and that number 2.5 million, is more than not only any country in the world – it’s more than any country in the history of the world – but the truth is that the United States, over the course of each year, actually incarcerates over 10 million men, women, and children. 10 million people. No other country is even remotely close. Let me give you some historical context.

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In 1847, at the height of slavery in the United States, two young Black men, Frederick Douglass and Dr. Martin Delany, decided that they were so frustrated with the mainstream media, so bothered that the leading newspapers of the day hardly even mentioned slavery – and damn sure weren’t advocating against it, that they decided to start their own newspaper – called The North Star – which was focused on freedom, liberation, and abolition – because they knew that nobody else was going to tell the stories they needed told the way they could do it for themselves.

So here we are, 172 years later, facing a new set of injustices, some of them worse than any injustices in our lifetime, and we’re struggling again to get these stories told in the media the way they deserve – and so we saw two primary options – we could beg traditional media outlets to do better – or we could start our own platform and get it right from the beginning. That’s why we decided to rebuild and relaunch The North Star – because we believe this is a much better path than hoping and praying our stories get told. Which brings me to my first point.

There is a HUGE gap between how much we care about injustice in America, how bothered we are by mass incarceration and police brutality and the prison industrial complex and criminal justice reform, there is a huge gap between how much we care about those things in our hearts and minds, and how little we are actually getting done to make a difference.

Our energy is not matching our output. Our frustration is not matching our organization. Our anger is not matching our action.

Every single day, Monday-Friday, I’ll of course be right here telling you about issues of racism and bigotry and inequality, but my job, the mission of The North Star, the mission of this podcast, is to break down for you how we can actually confront and change those systemic issues.

Now it took me years and years to understand what I’m about to tell you, but in our nation, we have one primary person that single handedly has the ability to change the game on every single issue related to mass incarceration and criminal justice reform more than anybody else in this country – even more than the President of the United States. And that person is your local District Attorney.

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Every city and county in this nation has one person, normally called a District Attorney, sometimes called the County Attorney, and that one person is the gatekeeper for your local justice system. They run the show. I need you to get this - because over 95% of crimes and arrests and convictions happen on the local level – so that means 95% of all issues related to criminal justice run through this one person’s office.

The United States has just about 2,400 district attorneys. They are 95% white, 82% male, and are overwhelmingly conservative – even when they claim to be Democrats. Don’t be fooled by the labels. Some of the worst district attorneys in the nation are lifelong Democrats. Some are lifelong Republicans who recently switched over to the Democratic Party because they knew they could no longer win as Republicans.

And if we want to change the game when it comes to mass incarceration, when it comes to holding police accountable, when it comes to hardcore reforms that actually impact the lives of the 10 million people on pace to be incarcerated this year – those reforms are more than likely going to run through your local District Attorney. They are the CEO’s of the local justice system and they have tremendous flexibility in how they run their offices, which old policies they want to enforce, and which new ones they want to introduce. So instead of thinking of our nation as having one large justice system, the truth is that we have 2,400 microsystems, and our best chance at impacting and changing those microsystems is through who? The District Attorney.


So, today I want to tell you about three brave young women and men, each under the age of 40, who are running to be District Attorney in 3 of the largest cities in the United States. Their elections are each in 2019 – not in 2020 - which in some ways means we can probably expect lower than normal voter turnout – which I think can actually be used to our advantage if we play it right.

And first up, I wanna tell you about a brilliant young Black woman named Audia Jones – who is running to be the District Attorney of Harris County, Texas. Counties are weird, because unless you are from Texas, you may have never heard of Harris County, but you have absolutely heard of Houston. Harris County is just Houston – and after Los Angeles and New York, Houston has the 3rd largest number of people in jail of any city in the nation. And so when you change what’s happening in Houston, you change the justice system in the entire country. It’s the largest single feeder city to Texas prisons. Houston is an incarceration factory. Audia actually already made the decision that she was going to change the justice system from the inside out there in Houston. She already worked for the District Attorney’s office and was excited because the new District Attorney there – Kim Ogg – campaigned on how she was going to change the system. And sadly, Audia Jones found out what most of us discovered - Kim Ogg has been an enormous disappointment. She ran on the words of change, but hasn’t really fought for it all since she’s been in office.

It was seeing this for herself that caused Audia to step down from her role as an Assistant District Attorney this past December and decide she was going to challenge her former boss, Kim Ogg, and then finally bring in the reforms that we all expected to see in Houston. Now I’d like to challenge the premise of a major disagreement we see currently within activism and organizing circles.

The disagreement basically goes like this:

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One group of people say they are for revolution and abolition and that anything short of full abolition and full revolution is selling out. They want to abolish the police departments and abolish the jails – because the entire system is corrupt from top to bottom. So, intellectually and even emotionally, I actually agree with this conclusion. If you’ve ever heard me speak live, you’ve no doubt heard me say that America’s justice system actually isn’t broken. We like to say that it’s broken, and the spirit of that conclusion is correct, but when we say it’s broken, that suggests that it’s not currently functioning exactly the way those who designed and built it fully intended it to function.

I don’t think America’s justice system is broken at all. Instead, I think it’s operating EXACTLY the way those who designed and built it meant it to function. It’s not broken. It’s firing on all cylinders. It doesn’t need a small tweak here or there – the whole thing needs to be torn down and reimagined. That’s my heart. I want that. And I don’t even blame people for fighting for this. You only get a small percentage of what you fight for, so if you fight for a little, you end up only getting a small percentage of a little – if you fight for a lot – you stand the chance of making sweeping changes if you win.

But here’s where the disagreement comes in.

I don’t believe, barring a full civil war, or something like it, that this nation will ever fully abolish jails or prisons, I don’t believe any major county is going to abolish them in one fell swoop – again – I think it’s a noble goal – but what I do think is fully possible is that if we elect a bold change agent to lead the system – someone who also wants to identify and dismantle the inequity – someone who also wants to radically cut the number of people incarcerated – that we might not see the whole system disappear at once, but that we can see it disappear piece by


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And Audia Jones wants to see this happen in Houston. Listen – she lives in Houston, raises her family in Houston – and yet some people want to incorrectly frame that we can either be for sweeping justice reforms OR for public safety – and it’s a false dichotomy. In fact, study after study shows us that sweeping justice reforms actually make cities safer. Criminalizing poverty, criminalizing mental illness – these things are not only needlessly expensive and cruel – they cause more despair and hopelessness.

When you get some time, I’d love for you to go AudiaJones.com (that’s AUDIAjones.com) to learn all about her and why I think she’d be a brilliant District Attorney in Houston. There you can learn about her platform, her personal story, and how you can support her campaign. Next up, let me get even closer to home and tell you about an absolutely brilliant public defender from Queens, New York that is running for District Attorney. I believe in this woman so much. I’ve had a chance to meet and speak with her on several occasions and I trust her. I trust her heart, her integrity, her knowledge of the system, and I trust her vision and plan to make it so much better than it is right now.

Her name is Tiffany Caban and she’s badass. She knows Queens like the back of her hand and has represented over 1,000 different clients across the years as a public defender. She knows the root causes of poverty and crime and has a wholistic plan to address issues at the root instead of just dealing with the symptoms.

Here’s what’s wild – the current DA of Queens, Dick Brown, is 86 years old and has literally been the DA since Tiffany Caban was 3 years old. He has been the DA through every spike and growth spurt of mass incarceration and has proudly gone along with it all. He has ruled that office with an iron fist. He’s finally stepping down, and the field to replace him is crowded, but no candidate is poised to bring in more systemic shifts and changes than Tiffany. I hope to have her on the podcast soon.

Her website is CabanForQueens.com (spell it).

Lastly, I want to tell you about my friend and brother Chesa Boudin (CHASE-uh BooDeen) – who is running to be the District Attorney of San Francisco. Chesa, like both Audia running in Houston and Tiffany running in Queens, is a kind and compassionate person. And it’s kind of sad to have to say that, but so many prosecutors and District Attorneys are just bad people – and I don’t say that lightly. I’ve met them and studied their work and many of the nation’s DA’s are mean spirited bigots and they run the system with that mean spirit and energy.

Chesa is one of most compassionate people you’ll ever meet and his story is one of the most compelling stories I’ve ever heard of someone running for District Attorney. When Chesa was just a baby, both his mother and father were convicted and sent to prison for life. His mother ended up serving 22 years in prison and his father will likely spend the rest of his life there. Chesa grew up visiting them behind bars and fences and has an acute understanding of what mass incarceration actually looks and feels like. Chesa ended up being adopted by extended family and developed a heart for civil rights and human rights at an early age. He has a brilliant mind, was a Rhodes Scholar, went to Yale and Oxford, has worked for some leading humanitarian organizations, and served as a Public Defender in San Francisco for many years.

Like Tiffany and Audia, his plan is to fundamentally change how the office of the District Attorney works in San Francisco. What Chesa taught me is that in San Francisco is that a staggering 75% of people who are booked into jail in San Francisco are either suffering from serious mental illness, drug addiction, or both. And the justice system there has to stop pretending like this isn’t a real crisis deserving of treatment instead of incarceration. Chesa also knows that most people in jail right now in San Francisco are there simply because they can’t afford cash bail – and he plans on ending the money bail system altogether. It’s a scam that preys on poverty.

San Francisco is seen around the world as a bastion of progressive ideas, but its justice system doesn’t really match up with this reputation – and Chesa is going to make that happen. If you’d like to learn more about Chesa – go to ChesaBoudin.com or visit TheNorthStar.com and check our show notes for today’s episode.

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Thank you all for making it all through our first episode of The Breakdown! If you haven’t already subscribed to our podcast, we’ll be right back here every single weekday, breaking down important news stories and issues, and we’d love for you to subscribe here and share this with your friends and family. Thank you so much to the nearly 30,000 founding members of The North Star whose generosity even makes this podcast possible. Love y’all and appreciate you so much. If you love this podcast and want to support our work – or want to see the show notes and transcript for each episode – we’d love it if you considered becoming a founding member of our community at TheNorthStar.com. There we not only have our podcasts, but hundreds of original articles and stories and commentaries from some of the leading scholars and thinkers in the world.

Lastly, thank you to our producer and podcasting director Willis – for putting in the hard work to get this podcast off the ground – and a final shout out to Idrys and Lance who added some extra flavor and instrumentation to our theme music and transitions to give this podcast a special feel.

Web links:

Audia Jones


Tiffany Cabán


Chesa Boudin



Produced and Engineered by Willis Polk II

Additional Instrumentation by: Christian Idris “Idrys” Shannon & Lance “Lance Fury” Powlis

Additional Engineering by Amond “AJ” Jackson for Salem Psalms Library

Additional Vocals by Garnett “Natti” Bush

Scratches by Kenny “DJ FlipFlop” Vanderberg

Contains elements from:

“Black Diamonds” by Natti

Additional Vocals by Jason Coffey

“Where Do We Go Now?” by The Off Daze

Additional Instrumentation by Christian Idris “Idrys” Shannon, Scoob Williams, Micah Tatum, Debraun Thomas & Marcus Wilkerson