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Quaker Org Says First Step Act Contains Missteps

Photo: PhotoMeesh via Flickr CC

Quaker Org Says First Step Act Contains Missteps

AFSC points to problematic risk assessment tools and immigration exceptions

WASHINGTON, DC (December 21, 2018) – Today, President Trump signed the “First Step Act,” a piece of bipartisan legislation that contains both prison and sentencing reform. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) – a Quaker organization that has been involved in anti-incarceration work since the 1960’s – said some of the bill’s provisions are a step backwards.

“While the bill does make some positive steps that were long overdue, we are deeply concerned that some of the provisions will exacerbate racial disparities in sentencing and encourage the expansion of the prison industrial complex,” said Lewis Webb, Director of AFSC’s healing justice network. “The use of racially biased risk assessment tools, the exclusion of immigrants, and the possibility of expanded privatization all reinforce, rather than ameliorate, the harms of mass incarceration.”

The First Step Act relies heavily on so-called “risk assessment tools” to determine who is eligible for rehabilitative programs in prison or release. These tools utilize predictive algorithms that have been widely criticized by criminal justice reform advocates across the nation for reinforcing race and class biases in the system and for penalizing people simply based on what they might do in the future. The legislation does not specify which risk assessment tool will be used, meaning it will be up to the Trump administration’s Justice Department to develop them.

The Act has also been critiqued for excluding immigrants. The legislation excludes non-citizens from benefiting from a range of provisions, including those that would help people in prison earn early release. “First Step sets a problematic precedent that immigrants do not deserve humane treatment within the criminal legal system,” said Peniel Ibe, Policy Associate for the American Friends Service Committee. “Migration-related cases make up over 50 percent of all federal criminal prosecutions. Any real attempt at comprehensive federal level criminal justice reform must include immigrants.”

The First Step Act will also benefit companies that operate halfway houses and other privatized reentry services, and the nation’s two largest private prison companies have both backed the bill. First Step calls for increased electrical monitoring and home detention, which expands the carceral state into the homes and communities of impacted individuals. The same corporations that run private prisons have also obtained contracts for electronic monitoring and other surveillance systems, ensuring their profits regardless of whether people are in prison or not.

“Instead of enriching private prison companies at the expense of our communities, we need federal policies that actually shrink the punishment system,” said Caroline Isaacs, Director of AFSC’s Arizona program that has long worked against prison privatization. “The First Step Act is narrow legislation with serious downsides. We are demanding that Congress work to pass meaningful sentencing reform that can benefit everyone.”

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The American Friends Service Committee is a Quaker organization that includes people of various faiths who are committed to social justice, peace and humanitarian service. Its work is based on the belief in the worth of every person and faith in the power of love to overcome violence and injustice.