Jason Flom: “I just felt like I had to do something”

The legendary CEO and founder of Lava Records and criminal justice reform advocate discusses his work with The Innocence Project and the Bronx Freedom Fund.

Jason Flom (photo by Celeste Sloman)

As the Chief Executive Officer and founder of Lava Records, Jason Flom is perhaps best known as a music impresario with a genius for picking monster hits. The New Yorker called him “one of the most successful record men of the past twenty years” and his track record as, at various times, the head of Atlantic Records, Virgin Records, and Capital Music Group is unparalleled. Lorde, Katy Perry and Kid Rock were all Flom successes, and he continues to be recognized as an innovator in the music industry.

But music is not his only passion — nor his only area of expertise. Flom has also been a long-time activist and philanthropist in the criminal justice reform movement. He’s a founding board member of The Innocence Project, which works to exonerate the wrongly convicted, and was a founding benefactor for The Bronx Freedom Fund, a non-profit bail fund. He has also serves on the boards of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, The Legal Action Center, the Drug Policy Alliance, and NYU Prison Education Program.

More recently, he began to produce a podcast called Wrongful Conviction that explores the stories of people who have been wrongfully convicted through the lens of their incarceration and how it has affected their lives. New Yorkers for Justice sat down with Flom in his New York office to discuss his criminal justice reform work and what still needs to be done to ensure that everyone who encounters the American judicial system gets equal justice.

So you got started in criminal justice reform because you read an article a couple years ago about a young man sentenced to 15 years for a non-violent first offense, cocaine possession.

Jason Flom: It was a nonviolent first offense, and it just struck me that the sentence was so wildly disproportionate to the crime. He didn’t hurt anybody, so it didn’t make any sense to me. And it dawned on me in that moment that it could happen to almost anyone if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I just felt like I had to do something about it.

You said you didn’t know a lot before going into it. What have you learned over the years about the system?

It’s just a bottomless pit of injustice and cruelty, and so, you know, where can I start? When you have a country that’s obsessed with mass incarceration and is happy to lock up its own citizens at a rate that exceeds the rest of the civilized world by 500%, you’re gonna have a lot of injustice and you can’t keep all the cells full because there aren’t that many people that do bad things.

Jim Webb, the former senator from VA, studied the criminal justice system in Japan and found that they have about 70,000 people in prison — 70,000. There’s probably three times that many in CA. So, his thing is we lock people up at 14x the rate per capita than Japan, where crime rates are the same.

There is no evidence and there never has been any evidence that locking people up is a deterrent or that it stops crime or reduces crime or anything else. It actually creates crime — if you think about it, once you’ve been in prison, it becomes so difficult to get a job, and you’ve lost whatever you had, and you know, whatever was wrong before, it’s worse now. So, that’s the second punishment — the stigma and the problems that come after you get out.

So, Jim’s conclusion was either we have the most evil people in the world or we’re doing something terribly wrong. And now here’s a guy who was republican, right, was a secretary of defense, I think maybe admiral. I mean, this is no wimp.

Yes, I started the Freedom Fund with Robin Steinberg. Our idea actually won a TED prize this year and it’s just now spread to so many markets. The idea has now been taken national with huge support from Mike Novogratz.

Why do you think our justice system is so broken?

That’s a great question and the reasons are many: mandatory sentencing, these are uniquely American problems. Other countries, at least other western or civilized countries, don’t do these things.

All the countries have different laws, but the combination is a deadly one. And there’s for profit prisons, and there’s the political system here which allows for lobbying, like groups that benefit directly from the incarceration of huge amounts of people. There’s more of those than you think. There’s a lot of profit centers in prisons.

People think slave labor was outlawed; it was, except if you’re not free, which sounds crazy, but yeah, that was a concession I think they made when they abolished slavery that slave labor was only illegal for free people. So in prison they’re still allowed to enslave you, which is what they do. There’s a whole industry around this, and there’s all kinds of corporations and all the people — such as the guards — benefiting from it.

Jason Flom (photo by Celeste Sloman)

What are the biggest problems with this administration and the threat they pose to criminal justice reform?

The biggest problem with the administration is everything, they’re just backwards on everything. In fact, they’re aggressively in favor of locking up huge numbers of people who are poor and preferably not white.

I don’t get how one day you’re just a normal person walking around, and the next day you get arrested and then you’re no longer a human being. Even though you’re American, so you know, you’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but everyone’s in jail because they can’t post bail. Like how, I mean that’s a violation of the 6th and the 14th amendment. Even a

There’s a great saying in the bail reform movement, which is, a system in which Sandra Bland goes to jail and Robert Durst goes home is a broken system. More recently, we have the example of Meek Mill who went to jail for popping a wheelie with no bond, right. If he could’ve been bailed out, he’d have been bailed out.

Meanwhile, a kid goes and shoots up a waffle house gets arrested without incident, as all these shooters do because they’re white, and they set bond at $2 million. So if his family had posted $2 million, he would have been out.

So what do you think remains the biggest obstacle to real reform? What would you attack first?

There’s so many, but I think decriminalizing drugs is a huge thing. We’re on our way, certainly with weed, obviously. I think decriminalizing all drugs is where it’s gotta go. All the evidence shows that if we do that, usage will go down, overdoses will go down, crime will go down, tax revenue will go up. It’s just like a no-brainer, but there are some smart people think that you shouldn’t legalize all drugs.

I think there has to be accountability with prosecutors. There’s no accountability. They can do whatever they want, and they are immune to being prosecuted themselves pretty much, so it’s virtually total immunity.

Bail is a huge thing, too. There’s 450,000 people in jail right now just because they can’t post bail. Maybe a thousand of them are like super dangerous and need to be held — and we don’t know if they’re guilty, but you know, I don’t think there should be any bail for the guy who shot up the waffle house. There either should be no bail or bail — if the judge and the powers that be are scared of you and you’re going to endanger the community, there should be no bail. And if you aren’t, then you should go home.

So who should be holding these people accountable?

The public does. They have to vote. So few people vote in local and district attorney races, it’s unbelievable. You need to vote. We need to vote for people who are progressive and who actually care about you.

And of course, politicians are responsible, but you know, a lot of them just don’t care, obviously, or we’d have a different set of laws in this country. You know, they’re beholden to different interest groups or whatever, and if that’s the case, we have to throw them out. I think it starts with the voters and ends with the politicians.

Can you talk about your involvement with the Innocence Project and the Bronx Freedom Fund? You started the latter with your father.

Well, I went to him for money, you know, because once we came up with the plan, we needed to fund it, so I went to my dad, Joe Flom, and he was very supportive of the idea, so he put up half the money and I raised the other half, and that’s how we started it. And amazingly, we started with $200,000 and I think there’s $190,000 still left. I mean after bailing out over a thousand people, that’s a great return on our investment. So that’s how that started.

Why is this such an important issue to you?

The problem is that you get arrested for something, you don’t have money, you may be innocent or you may be guilty. You may be jumping a turnstile or some other benign situation like drinking a beer in the park or something, and then you end up in Rikers Island, one of the most dangerous institutions in the world.

Then you’re subject to extreme violence. You’re likely to lose your job or possibly your home, maybe your family too, and go through incredible amounts of pain and suffering that are unnecessary, when what you should be is either given a ticket and sent home, or nothing, or go home and come to court, like our clients do.

With The Innocence Project: again, it’s the idea that there are these huge number of people who are factually innocent, who are rotting in prison, who didn’t do anything — that’s literally the worst.

I think that’s most people’s primal fear, right, being locked up in a cell and subjected to all the horror that goes with that for something they didn’t fucking do. So again, as a fervently irreligious person, there but for the grace of God go I, or you, or anybody. It could happen to anybody, and it does.

Your podcast, Wrongful Conviction, tells these kind of stories. Why is it important for them to be out there?

Because I think it’s somewhat cathartic for many of them, but more importantly, we are educating the public and getting them used to the idea that these things happen, and they happen a lot and they have to be prevented from happening.

People also have a responsibility to show up for jury duty, to pay attention and to have an informed approach, so you don’t end up convicting somebody who’s innocent. And I think people need to understand that just because some authority figure is out there saying this guy did this or whatever, you have to realize that that guy may be lying. And you have a responsibility not to take it at face value but look into it and do your job.

I’ll give other practical advice: like if you get picked up for something you didn’t do, don’t say anything. They’re not your friends. They’re gonna act like they’re your friends. Your agenda is going home, their agenda is getting you to say something you don’t want to say. So, the answer is this is my name, this is where I live, and I want a lawyer. That’s it, shut up.

What are you most excited about in the criminal justice reform movement right now?

h, I’m excited about the momentum in general. There’s so many smart and capable people who have devoted time and resources to this fight now. You know, 25 years ago, people looked at me like I was crazy talking about this stuff, and now it seems like there’s just a ton of momentum behind it.

So what can people do right now?

I think everybody needs to get woke, you know what I mean? I think people should subscribe to The Marshall Project Newsletter. It’ll give you a tremendous insight into just how broken this justice system is and just how vulnerable you are to its arbitrary and capricious nature.

I think obviously, volunteering at different organizations. There’s so many organizations doing such great work trying to fix these problems. And open your mind and your heart as well. People who are formally incarcerated are not monsters. Like Bryan Stevenson says, I believe everybody’s better than the worst thing they’ve ever done.

What are some of the successes you’re most proud of?

Well, every exoneration is a miracle. Everybody that we help get out of prison before their time is up is a miracle. The micro stuff is the thing that I’ll remember when I’m in my rocking chair and, you know, reminiscing over a glass of wine. I’ll think about Michelle Murphy or Noura Jackson or any of the people whose lives I’ve been able to have an impact on.

But the back-row stuff is more important, the bail reform stuff, the legislative changes that I’ve been a part of, whether that’s rolling back the crack cocaine mandatory sentencing from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1, working on that with so many great allies, including Senator Durbin and others.

I’m also very, very proud of the work that’s been done by Families Against Mandatory Minimums, where we’ve been able to roll back so many mandatory sentencing laws in states. And that’s where the work is now. With the federal government, we’re screwed for the foreseeable future, but in the states, where 90% of the inmates are, there’s huge changes being made.

And then lastly, I would say the post exoneration stuff — the programs that I’ve created or helped to create, like the Life After Exoneration Program at the Innocence Project and what’s become known as the Innocence Network Conference, which are designed with the specific goal of helping formally incarcerated people — in this case, innocent people — get back on their feet.

One other thing I always like to highlight about wrongful convictions is that in every single case when the wrong person has been locked up, the right person has been allowed to stay free. So that’s just another aspect of this fight that should concern everyone, even if it’s not your focus, even if you really don’t care and you don’t think that many people are wrongfully convicted.

Please join New Yorkers For Justice’s call for genuine reform to abolish cash bail — sign the petition:

For more interviews with activists and community leaders like Jason Flom, sign up for our newsletter:

And follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Is there an activist, organization, or story that you think NY4J should feature? Email us at join@newyorkersforjustice.com.

New Yorkers For Justice

The activists, organizations, and stories powering criminal justice reform.

New Yorkers For Justice

Written by

New Yorkers For Justice

The activists, organizations, and stories powering criminal justice reform.