Jason Flom on rock ‘n’ roll and getting the innocent out of prison

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Jason Flom and Dahlia Lithwick discuss America's punitive tendency to lock up as many citizens as possible at the Tom Tom Founders Summit.
Photo Tom Daly Jason Flom and Dahlia Lithwick discuss America’s punitive tendency to lock up as many citizens as possible at the Tom Tom Founders Summit. Photo Tom Daly

Lava Records founder Jason Flom could be the most successful recording executive of this era. But it was his other great passion—for justice—that packed the Paramount at the Tom Tom Festival Founders Summit April 15.

Flom, who said he lost his virginity at a Yes concert when he was 15, launched mega-performers like Katy Perry, Lorde and Kid Rock. He recalled his father telling him, when he balked at finishing college, “Do what you want to do. Just make the world a better place.”

In 1992, he heard about a kid serving serving a 15 years-to-life sentence for cocaine under the harsh Rockefeller drug laws in New York. “I decided to get involved,” he said. “I had my own history of doing drugs. There but for the grace of God….”

Even his own attorney told him nothing could be done, but at Flom’s expense, the attorney got a hearing and the man was freed. “That was so profound,” he said. And that launched his own criminal justice advocacy with Families Against Mandatory Minimums and The Drug Policy Alliance and he was a founding board member of the Innocence Project.

A week ago, Virginia’s latest exoneration was Keith Harward, who walked out of prison after 33 years for a murder and rape he didn’t commit, convicted on the “terrible forensics” of now-discredited bite mark evidence, said Flom. DNA evidence proved he was not the murderer, and 40 percent of exonerations show who the real criminal was, said Flom. In Harward’s case, the real perp was a serial rapist who went on to attack again (he died in prison 10 years ago).

“That never needed to happen if police had done their job,” Flom said.

He noted that the United States locks up more of its citizens than any country—ever. “If another country did to our people what we do to them, we’d bomb them,” he said.

One thing that could get a half million people out of jail now would be cash-less bail, because it’s poor people who can’t make bail, said Flom. That’s being done in Washington, D.C., where people are only charged bail if they don’t show up in court, and it’s working there, he said.

Flom advocates legalization of drugs, starting with marijuana, and points to Portugal as a model. “Here we have people in prison for life for pot,” he said.

“My philosophy is harm reduction,” said Flom. “Drugs are always part of society.” He cited mass incarceration as part of the harm, and suggested letting the punishment fit the crime in instances when someone else is hurt.

Flom called those exonerated by the Innocence Project “the luckiest of the unlucky people in the world,” and said he got into work with that organization because, “I can’t imagine anything worse than being locked up for something you didn’t do.”

Between 4 percent and 7 percent of all people who are in jail are innocent, said Flom earlier Friday at the “Exoneration as Innovation in Our Legal System” luncheon. He also wondered why prosecutors are never prosecuted in the cases of wrongful convictions.

At that event with UVA’s Brandon Garrett, who wrote Convicting the Innocent, Deirdre Enright with UVA’s Innocent Project Clinic and who was involved in the hit podcast, “Serial,” Albemarle Sheriff Chip Harding, who’s tried to launch a justice commission in Virginia to eliminate police practices that lead to wrongful convictions, and Dahlia Lithwick, who covers the Supreme Court for Slate, participants noted that “Serial” and “Making a Murderer” have piqued the public’s interest in the innocent being incarcerated.

Advocacy, money and lawyers are needed to make change, said Flom, because it’s unlikely to come from politicians.

 

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