Jason Sole, ex-con turned professor, could be next Minneapolis NAACP president

Jason Sole (right) went from drug dealing to becoming a professor at Hamline University.

Jason Sole (right) went from drug dealing to becoming a professor at Hamline University.

Nekima Levy-Pounds, the outgoing president of the Minneapolis NAACP, has one guy in mind as her successor: Jason Sole.

Sole, the popular chairman of criminal justice reform at the NAACP, is a thrice convicted felon-turned-Hamline University professor who volunteers in juvenile prisons across Minnesota and lobbies for restoring the voting rights of ex-offenders.

When Levy-Pounds approached him about becoming the next NAACP president, Sole was reticent. He didn’t know what it meant, or if people would vote for him. She told him to think about it. It was a natural transition.

Levy-Pounds announced her nomination of Sole Tuesday. Support was overwhelming.

“It just made me feel good. I’ve been putting in the work, but it’s not always recognized or appreciated,” Sole says. “So now I’m just looking to strengthen the word. It’s gonna be heavy. It’s gonna be hard. But I think I’m prepared for it.”

Raised on the South Side of Chicago, Sole convinced himself early on that it was safer and more lucrative to sell drugs than to ride his bike around the neighborhood delivering newspapers. He joined a street gang, got caught with an illegal firearm at 18, and then got busted again at 21 with 18 grams of crack. Then he resolved to go to college.

These days, he’s still door knocking and phone banking to get out the vote. After 17 years in the criminal justice system, Sole only had his own voting rights restored in March.

He’s been barred from actually taking part in politics for so long, he says, that he doesn’t feel comfortable making too much of his bid for NAACP president. He plans to send out an email blast reminding folks who think he’d be good for the role to come out and cast a ballot, but that’s probably about it.

Instead, Sole has been meditating on the direction of the Minneapolis chapter, and what issues he would focus on.

Fighting the proposed joint Hennepin and Ramsey juvenile treatment center tops his list.

The controversial project, which will hold 165 beds for teen criminals, is estimated to cost nearly $40 million in construction. That’s a lot of money that could be better put to use helping kids with school, chemical dependency, or homelessness, or just giving them something to do after school. 

“There will be some, inevitably, who end up in the system, but to allocate 165 beds when we don’t even have 165 juveniles in out-of-home placement right now, doesn’t make sense,” Sole says. “Not only that, best practices state that any kind of incarceration makes them more risk of going to adult prison. Most adult offenders have juvenile records. So you can see that these juvenile facilities don’t work.”

In the months following Mike Freeman’s decision to not indict the officers involved in Jamar Clark’s shooting, Sole peppered the local news with detailed criticism of Freeman’s review of the evidence.

Now that Ramsey County Attorney John Choi has received the Philando Castile case file, Sole says he is planning to do the same with Choi as he weighs whether to indict Officer Jeronimo Yanez.

“I’m going to do what I did before. There are groups preparing for a non-indictment, all kinds of things,” Sole says. “For me, my strategy is put more pressure on. Might put together a Twitter storm pretty soon. It won’t be hard. I think we have a stronger case because we have footage of what took place initially. We did research showing he was pulled over 52 times in the past 15 years. We’ve laid the groundwork for Choi to make a conscious decision. Are you actually going to indict this time and show that we can be more closer to the middle instead of being so far divided?”

No one else is currently being considered to replace Levy-Pounds. Other nominations would be accepted the day of the election.