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Time for transformation in our criminal justice system

Photo: Creative Commons

The House just passed a prison reform bill— but it falls far short of meaningful change. 

By Denise Lee and Lewis Webb, Jr.

This week, the House of Representatives voted overwhelming to pass the FIRST STEP Act, a bipartisan bill that would make extremely limited changes to America’s federal prisons. Over the past decade, support has grown across the political spectrum to address the harm of mass incarceration, with many calling for an end to overly punitive sentences that have swelled prison populations.  

While there are laudable provisions in the FIRST STEP Act, it falls far short of offering meaningful criminal justice reform by failing to address sentencing reform. That’s why AFSC joined other national faith organizations—Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, Jewish, Interfaith, Mennonite, Presbyterian, and Unitarian—and others to call on lawmakers to amend the bill to include sentencing reform.  

Here’s what you need to know:

Why the FIRST STEP Act—without sentencing reform—fails to deliver meaningful change to our justice system

We need a bill that will decrease the number of people sent to prison, decrease the amount of time people spend in prison, and significantly increase the number of people released. By failing to include sentencing reform in FIRST STEP, the bill does little to disrupt mass incarceration and its disparate impact on communities of color.  

Proponents of the FIRST STEP Act argue that it offers important incremental steps in the right direction. But any measure that does not include sentencing reform at this time is a step backward, undermining momentum for broader reforms demanded by many faith and civil rights organizations. 

More promising was a measure advanced earlier this year by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee—The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 1917), which offered sentencing reform that lowered mandatory minimums and increased the possibilities for earning credits toward shortening sentences, without prolonging incarceration. That bill includes sentencing reform, a slate of reforms to address the needs of people in prison, and changes to improve prospects for successful reentry by people leaving prison to return to their families and communities. 

In addition to key reforms missing from the FIRST STEP Act passed by the House, it also contains several troubling provisions: The bill would rely on risk assessment tools that are based on static factors to determine who would benefit, and would likely increase racial disparities in the prison system that would exclude many people of color from benefitting from programs. The prison reform bill opens the door to additional privatization without public oversight and expands the use of electronic monitoring. And many people in prison would not be eligible to benefit from the reforms at all, including many immigrants and those convicted of a long list of crimes.   

Although the bill contained several good provisions—such as ending the shackling of pregnant women and improving rehabilitation and reentry opportunities—most of these goals could be enacted by administrative orders without legislative action if the administration wished to act.

Why we need sentencing reform

Every society needs a means to hold one another accountable to shared standards of conduct toward each other and the world around us. But the system we have in the U.S.—with its draconian sentences, harsh and inhumane prison conditions, and insurmountable obstacles to successful returning to the community—does not promote accountability nor does it improve our safety. 

Evidence shows that harsh sentences and inhumane conditions do not prevent recidivism. On the contrary, they make it more difficult for people in prison to successfully live out their potential upon release, and have devastating impacts on families and communities.

Our criminal justice system should focus on healing and transformation instead of punishment and retribution. Without a paradigm shift, we are stuck in cycles of ever harsher application of sentencing laws and the perpetuation of torturous prison conditions, making us all less safe and destroying more lives.

How racism drives criminal justice policy and practice

The racial disparities inherent in the “war on drugs,” targeted policing, and discriminatory sentencing practices are well documented. Individual, institutional, and systemic racism at every step throughout the criminal justice system—from police, to prosecutors, to judges, to prison staff, to parole boards—impact decisions on whether or how a person is charged, sentenced, and released. 

People of color continue to be more likely to be stopped or contacted by police, arrested, face drug charges that carry a mandatory minimum sentence, receive longer sentences, and be subject to greater systemic challenges upon reentry, such as racial discrimination in getting jobs and attaining access to housing. These injustices will continue unless we pass comprehensive justice reform that reduces disparate treatment throughout the justice system, increases transparency and accountability within the system, and ends arbitrary, harsh sentencing. 

Who benefits from our current system

“Tough on crime” rhetoric and policies continue to stand in the way of real justice reform and assure profits for America’s private prison corporations. FIRST STEP is a showpiece of a bill that, if passed, would allow the Trump administration and some lawmakers to claim that they’ve taken action to address mass incarceration—when we know that isn’t the case. This is a weak prison reform bill that fails to offer meaningful prison reform or adequate funding, while the lack of sentencing reform upholds a “tough on crime” stance that will allow harsh sentencing to continue. 

Unsurprisingly, for-profit prison corporations such as GEO Group and CoreCivic are among the most active lobbying organizations and donors to political candidates. No company should be allowed to profit from policies that fuel mass incarceration by locking up more people and holding individuals for longer periods of time.

What’s next  

Many progressives and reform advocates are applauding the reforms proposed in the FIRST STEP Act as the “best we can get at this time” and “better than nothing.” But their support for this flawed bill threatens to undermine the possibilities for the real change that we need. If this bill is passed, it jeopardizes efforts to achieve the comprehensive reforms that advocates that had been advancing prior to the push to pass prison reform only by the administration.  

This country is ready to create alternatives to punishment, end racial disparities, and stop prison profiteers. We must continue to call for meaningful change. We must continue to work to transform our justice system in the most comprehensive ways possible at this moment by including sentencing reform in any justice-related bill that passes this session of Congress.