In the 13 years since “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” debuted, Kim Kardashian West has parlayed her reality TV career into successful beauty and shapewear businesses, served as a spokesperson for several charities and causes, blown up into a social media influencer with 164 million Instagram followers, and become a mother four times over. To say people are fascinated by her is an understatement: Her every move is dissected in the tabloids and used to feed the same 24-hour news cycle her late father, defense attorney Robert Kardashian, was a part of when it launched during the O.J. Simpson trial.
It’s her father’s sense of justice that Kardashian West has invoked in recent years, ever since she came upon the now-famous story of Alice Johnson — a grandmother who was serving life without parole on a non-violent drug charge. The self-made millionaire used her space in that news cycle to share Johnson’s story and eventually lobbied President Donald Trump to grant the woman clemency, which he did in 2018. Now, Kardashian West is taking her fight for criminal justice reform further by humanizing four more cases of people whose lives have been unfairly lost to the system in Oxygen’s new documentary “Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project.”
“Alice kind of became the face of reform but I wanted to show people that there can be other situations,” Kardashian West tells Variety. “If they’ve committed a crime they should do time. But the beautiful rehabilitation that can happen behind bars over time is what I wanted to showcase. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Dig deeper to understand what people are going through.”
Kardashian West stars in and executive produces the two-hour film, which introducers viewers to the stories of Dawn Jackson, Alexis Martin, David Sheppard and Momolu Stewart. In telling their stories the doc reveals horrific hidden histories of sex-trafficking, abuse and rape that give some of the crimes in question more context, while also digging into unfair sentencing and a person’s ability to reform after being removed from society. To date, both Sheppard and Stewart have been released as a result of Kardashian West’s assistance; it’s help that goes beyond her celebrity status. As the star humanizes these stories she’s also hauling it behind-the-scenes to write change-making policy with mentors Jessica Jackson and Erin Haney of #Cut50, an Oakland-based prison reform organization co-founded by Jackson and Van Jones.
“Working on individual cases and getting the bills passed, it goes hand-in-hand because you really need this space to show people what justice looks like,” Kardashian West says. “Once people saw Alice’s face and saw her running out to her family and saw that she really is not a threat to society, it softened people’s hearts and was instrumental in getting The First Step Act passed, which was endorsed by a lot of people and completely bi-partisan.”
Kardashian West reveals she receives a fair number of letters from prisoners seeking her help, and she tries to read all of them personally. When she sees the chance to help she will, otherwise she passes the cases on to pro-bono attorneys who are happy for the work. It’s a lot, given her other commitments, but the sense of injustice she feels for these stories pushes her to continue working with #Cut50 while filming her show, running her businesses, and raising children alongside husband Kanye West.
“It does get frustrating, especially when there are situations of someone that’s behind bars for life for marijuana and now it’s legal,” she says. “The bills aren’t retroactive and just knowing that it does not make sense. It’s so sad that someone’s life is just thrown away over something really small. That kind of stuff gets really frustrating.”
Meanwhile, writing bills and responding to these letters is a small part of Kardashian West’s bigger project: passing the California State bar exam in 2023. The 39-year-old is proving just how seriously she’s taking this fight by following in her late father’s footsteps and apprenticing to become a lawyer, dedicating 20 hours a week to her studies while juggling all of those other aspects of her life in the public eye.
“There are times where it’s just so difficult and so exhausting and there’s so much work to do. I have four kids and I have other work to do — my work on the side that I’m trying to squeeze in while I am running my companies. So it does get really overwhelming, but I really love it,” she says.
“I would be sitting in all of these meetings and always need an attorney by my side or on the phone with me because I never wanted to be or to sound uneducated or not know the law of what I’m fighting for these people,” she continues. “I thought, I can do more if I know more and it would be a way quicker process.”
“Kim Kardashian West: The Just Project” premieres April 5 on Oxygen.