The First Step Act Passes: An Incremental Change That May Do More Harm Than Good

Today is a celebration—for some—as President Trump signed into law the First Step Act. For some, the law will create what the New York Times calls "the most significant changes to the criminal justice system in a generation.” It is a beautiful example of the advocacy and leadership of formerly incarcerated people and their families. However, for many of us we see that this law may have devastating effects due to its shortcomings that bolster technology and privatization and that will ultimately perpetuate structural inequality. All of course which will fall heavily on those most impacted by the criminal justice system: Black people, Latinx people, indigenous people, women, children, immigrants, and transgender and gender nonconforming people. Some of the groups who organized against passage of the law include JustLeadershipUSA and the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC). Concerns include:

The first success lauded in this article by CNN regarding the use of Risk Assessments is one of largest issues progressive advocates have with the law. As Deanna R. Hoskin’s states in her article “The FIRST STEP Act sets up a dangerous future:

Such assessments have been shown to perpetuate or exacerbate racial biases and institutionalize structural racism by relying on data such as “zip code” and “age at first arrest” — both signal over-policing of black people and communities of color, rather than risk of actual behavior.

As the NCC stated in their opposition in supporting JustLeaderhipUSA's analysis on our countries history of racism: 

The current mass incarceration crisis was birthed out of racist intentions, and we must be just as intentional about addressing the embedded racism if we are to have any meaningful reform.

Also, of concern is the increased use of electronic monitoring. Prison Abolitionist and advocates have criticized expanding and bringing carceral systems closer to our communities for years. Electronic home monitoring allows the government to save money on incarcerating individuals, but at the same time shifts the costs to the incarcerated individual and bolsters businesses making a profit off of the prison industry. As the NCC stated in their opposition, the electronic home monitoring provisions serve to 

exacerbate economic disparities rooted in race and class. This and other provisions allow the privatization of certain public functions and feed into and build upon the already burgeoning for-profit prison industry.

JustLeaderhipUSA also notes in their policy brief against the Act:

The First Step Act opens the door wide open for the federal government to use these tools to expand mass supervision into communities across the country. JLUSA believes that creating a carceral system reliant on the utilization of electronic monitoring and risk assessments will inflict further harm on directly impacted people.

Further, another concern is that electronic home monitoring will likely increase the chances of reincarceration when people are not given enough support systems but are under surveillance of the prison system.

Finally, since the beginning of the Trump presidency Jeff Sessions has helped undermine prison reentry opportunities and he will now be the one with the responsibility of creating the risk assessment instrument that the law will use according to the article by Deanna R. Hoskins. 

 

The following links are provided for ease of reading more on the issue:

 

Articles from Progressive opinions in opposition of the Act:

The FIRST STEP Act sets up a dangerous future, by Deanna R. Hoskins, The Hill Opinion Contributor

The First Step Act Is A Step Not Worth Taking, by Roy L. Austin, Jr., Huffpost Opinion


Articles in Support of the bill:

10 reasons to celebrate the First Step Act, Van Jones and Jessica Jackson, CNN

 

Articles on problems of risk assessments and racial bias:

Are criminal risk assessment scores racist? Jennifer L. Doleac and Megan Stevenson, Brookings Institute

Bias in Criminal Risk Scores Is Mathematically Inevitable, Researchers Say, by Julia Angwin and Jeff Larson, ProPublica

 

Info on problems of Electronic Home Monitoring as an “Alternative”:

https://www.challengingecarceration.org

Riley Hewko, Esq.

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