The doublethink of the FIRST STEP Act


Today’s political environment often begs comparison to the dystopian world in Orwell’s 1984, as truth gives way to fake news and our airwaves become replete with “doublethink,” a term coined and defined as “deliberate, perverse, or unconscious acceptance or promulgation of conflicting facts, principles, etc.”

But nowhere is doublethink more chillingly wielded than with the FIRST STEP Act, the bipartisan criminal justice reform bill now before the Senate. Ostensibly a criminal justice reform act, FIRST STEP aims to lower federal incarceration rates and improve conditions of confinement in federal prisons. If enacted, the bill would likely accomplish these aims to a small extent.

{mosads}But under the aegis of reform—and despite a few good provisions—this bill would improve conditions for only a tiny minority of America’s carceral population while promoting the interests of unaccountable for-profit prison contractors, signaling a long-term regression to failed policies and practices demonstrably based on racial bias, and implementing a standard of government surveillance that heretofore has been confined to dystopian fiction.

While some well-intentioned stakeholders might be tempted to support FIRST STEP on the merits of its measures to improve conditions of federal confinement for a select few, all of these short-term goals could readily be accomplished by other existing means. We must not let these modest merits distract us from FIRST STEP’s other, harmful policies and their potentially devastating unintended consequences. Rather, in our fight for sustainable reform, we must examine the long-term impact of this bill.

Along with our fellow proponents of access to equity and opportunity for the 75 million Americans with criminal-justice history, College & Community Fellowship opposes FIRST STEP as a dangerous obstacle to real reform of our broken criminal justice system. FIRST STEP’s emphasis on risk-assessment tools and charge-based exclusions, both of which are already proven to be deeply tainted by racial bias, reinforces racial prejudice and ensures that communities of color continue to be disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system.

With its introduction of constant digital monitoring in the community, FIRST STEP would normalize, even celebrate, an unprecedented technologically driven invasion of privacy into the homes of—and at the expense of—some of America’s most underserved households, setting a precedent for an alarming expansion of surveillance in communities already devastated by mass criminalization. And FIRST STEP’s sentencing reform provisions will prove inadequate, relying on judges’ discretion for the “drug safety valve” and replacing mandatory life sentencing with still-unfair 25-year sentences.

In the late 19th century, Southern legislators created Jim Crow laws to control black people in the wake of Reconstruction. After long struggle against oppression, leaders of color succeeded in securing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Acts of 1965 to curb systemic racism. Soon, however, the Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1965, and the Moynihan Report provided a rationale for over-policing and perpetuated racist stereotypes of black criminality. Thus the criminal legal system quickly became the means to contain and control the same communities that Jim Crow had oppressed.

The “War on Drugs” followed as justification to begin incarcerating thousands and then millions of people, and the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill accelerated the mass incarceration crisis we face today. All of these initiatives were bipartisan measures intended to reduce crime but instead created far-reaching harmful policies that continue to plague communities of color across America today.

Now, after years of directly impacted leaders gaining wide popular support for an end to mass incarceration, we are witnessing again an emerging fascination with new methods of social control. But we must not be deceived by the seeming efficiency of e-carceration and risk assessment as solutions to our mass incarceration problem. Both are deeply flawed and unsustainable responses that perpetuate the social inequities that have created America’s criminal justice crisis. FIRST STEP provides relief for fewer than 3 percent of those currently incarcerated in the US, but at the cost of long-term discriminatory controls in prisons and in our communities.

{mossecondads}My own experience of incarceration took place decades ago. Had FIRST STEP s’s proposed risk-assessments been in place for me then, I would have been released on account of my low-risk profile, which included a strong educational background, lots of prior work experience, and stable family support on the outside. But I would not be willing to sacrifice the dignity and comfort of the vast majority who are excluded from this bill for comforts granted to the fortunate few. Immediate improvements mean little if they come at the expense of freedom and opportunity for current and future generations.

Only by addressing the root causes of mass incarceration, based in racially biased policies and procedures, can we make lasting change. Real reform means investing in people and communities, not in for-profit prisons and surveillance.

The Reverend Vivian D. Nixon is Executive Director of College & Community Fellowship, a non-profit dedicated to helping formerly incarcerated women earn their college degrees so that they, their families, and their communities can thrive.

Tags FIRST STEP Act justice reform

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