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How a big record executive got into criminal justice reform and is helping free innocent prisoners

'I have seen that for quite a number of exonerees, a little bit of support can go a very long way,' said Jason Flom.

How a big record executive got into criminal justice reform and is helping free innocent prisoners
Cover Image Source: CEO of Lava Records and founding board member of the Innocence Project Jason Flom during the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival on April 27, 2019, in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

Jason Flom was 32 and working his way up at Atlantic Records when he saw a story in the paper that mentioned how 32-year-old Steven Lennon had been convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison in 1984 for possession of 4.2 ounces of cocaine. "When I saw that, all I could think was, 'that could have been me,'" Flom (now the founder and CEO of Lava Records, a label partnered with Universal that counts Lorde, Greta Van Fleet and Jessie J among its roster of artists) told Worth. After reading Lennon's story in 1993, it hit him that if he hadn't grown up privileged and white in New York, he could've easily been in Lennon's shoes.


Unlike Lennon, Flom had gone to rehab instead of prison for cocaine at the age of 26. "Because I came from the neighborhood I came from, the zip code I came from, the family I came from, and because I was employed, I was sent to rehab," he told NPR in 2020. Although he hadn't made much of a name for himself at the time, Flom had some connections and some favors he could call in. "There was this guy, Bob Kallina, we would call if one of the singers or anybody in the band got arrested," he revealed in an interview with Rolling Stone.


Flom got in touch with both Kallina and Lennon's mother to see if they could work together to get Lennon out of prison. Kallina called to say that he had found a small loophole in the case. This eventually led to Flom, Kallina and Lennon's family sitting in a courtroom where a judge heard the arguments and ruled in Lennon's favor. "Once the judge banged the gavel down, and I saw what was possible, it was like, 'Holy shit, this is crazy,'" Flom recalled. "It was the most unbelievable feeling." In the years since, Flom has become so involved in criminal justice reform that he's lost count of exactly how many people he's helped get out of prison.


Today, he is a founding board member of the Innocence Project, the long-standing organization that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted people. He also hosts two podcasts, Lava For Good's "Wrongful Convictions" and "Righteous Convictions", where he sits down with people who have been victims of our justice system to hear their stories and with experts and activists to take a broader look at policy illusions and overarching issues that intersect with criminal justice reform. According to the Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck and the COO of Lava, Jeff Kempler, it's Flom's doggedness and significant powers of persuasion to simply bypass a broken system and go straight to the top that makes him so good at what he does.


"Asking other people for money just doesn't come naturally to a lot of us," Scheck revealed. "Jason has no shame. Jason will come right out and he'll say, 'Look, you know this is a good thing. You should give money to this. You should help us pay for this.' And he was great at that, whether it was at a gala or just in ordinary conversation." Kempler echoed the same, stating: "It can really help sometimes. Like taking a governor or a senator backstage to a Greta Van Fleet show is useful for, 'Hey, let me also, while you're here, talk to you about this legislation around bail reform.'"


This trait of Flom's came in handy in 2000 when he managed to get Bill Clinton to grant clemency to 17 nonviolent first offenders. He also sponsored four attorneys to work processing clemency applications for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, thereby playing a role in at least some of the 1,715 clemencies Obama granted by the end of his second term. "And there are a bunch [of prisoners] who I've been able to convince various governors to send home, probably 10 or 12," he revealed. "I think there's five that I've been able to convince others not to execute."


As well as working tirelessly to free innocents from behind bars, Flom also helps them get back on their feet once outside. From setting up job interviews and vouching for their character to figuring out what they need to help them adjust to life on the outside, he becomes their lifeline. "I have seen that for quite a number of exonerees, a little bit of support can go a very long way," he explained, "because they are so motivated to become successful," to make up for the lost time. "They all have that crazy lack of bitterness you just saw," Flom said of the wrongfully convicted people who he knows. "They all have that will to live. If you go through an ordeal like that, you can either let it take over your life and destroy you—and I'm sure a lot of people do, because who could stand the fucking deprivation and everything else they go through—or you find this fucking inner something that these people have, which is what's so intoxicating about being around them. They've figured out the meaning of life. There's nothing I would rather be doing with my time."

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