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March 12, 2019

Making progressive (but not political) case that the FIRST STEP Act "does much harm"

Marie Gottschalk has this new Jacobin commentary assailing the FIRST STEP Act under the headlined "Did You Really Think Trump Was Going to Help End the Carceral State?".  The piece reiterates at length a variety of the criticisms from the left waged against the risk assessment tools in FIRST STEP while its fate was being debated in Congress. I recommend the whole piece, and here is how it starts and some excerpts:

With much fanfare, President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act into law in December. New Jersey senator and presidential candidate Cory Booker hailed the legislation as a milestone that marked a “meaningful break from decades of failed policies that led to mass incarceration.” Other supporters were more measured, characterizing it as a modest first step to keep the momentum going for criminal justice reform.

But the greatest sins of the First Step Act are not its modesty. The legislation nicks the edges of the carceral state while bolstering disturbing trends in criminal justice reform. CNN commentator Van Jones has claimed that the First Step Act is a “rare clean bill” that “does no harm.” Jones is wrong — it does much harm.

Grounding penal policy in the best evidence-based research is a mantra in criminal justice reform. Yet key provisions of the First Step Act are at odds with leading research on how to enhance public safety while minimizing social and economic costs and maintaining a fair criminal justice system that treats everyone — including people who are imprisoned — with dignity....

Van Jones’s claim that the First Step Act paves the way for federal prisons to “rehabilitate and heal — not just punish” rings hollow. The legislation authorizes miniscule funding for its ambitious aims. It designates $75 million annually for the next five years to develop and implement the new risk and needs assessment system for each person in the federal prison system. In doing so, the measure diverts “limited resources for programming by requiring a complex risk assessment process that would primarily benefit people deemed at a low or minimal risk of recidivating,” according to the Sentencing Project, which ultimately gave its qualified support to the First Step Act....

The fundamental problem is not that people in prison do not want to participate in programs but rather the critical shortage of those programs, let alone quality programs. Currently, 16,000 people are on the wait list for the BOP’s literacy program.

The federal prison system is currently in crisis due to overcrowding and staff cutbacks that the First Step Act will not alleviate. Many federal facilities are operating way above capacity. Nurses, counselors, and even cooks have been drafted to serve as temporary correctional officers because of severe staffing shortages. Last year a bipartisan group of legislators charged the Bureau of Prisons and the Trump administration with ignoring calls in Congress not to eliminate thousands of jobs in the federal prison system.

It is impossible to run effective prison programs when people are locked down in their cells due to staffing shortages, teachers and counselors are filling in for correctional officers, and assaults and violence are on the rise, as has been the case in the federal prisons.

Concerns about the under-funding and under-staffing of federal prisons are well founded, and the headline of this new Marshall Project report does not provide a basis for any new optimism: "First Step Act Comes Up Short in Trump’s 2020 Budget: Supporters worry because law seeks $75 million a year for five years, but president’s plan lists $14 million." But I always find these kinds of criticisms of modest improvements in criminal justice systems quite politically tone deaf given how politicians on both sides of the aisle have shown so little interest in pursuing any reforms at all until fairly recently.

This author rightly notes that "many federal facilities are operating way above capacity," but she leaves out that the federal prison population is lower now than any year while Prez Obama was in office. If Prez Obama was unwilling or unable to pursue all the big changes that progressives would like to see, there need to be even more of a political sea change to make big reforms viable.  Notably, some of the 2020 candidates are talking big about criminal justice reform on the campaign trail (most notable Cory Booker), and it is seems to me that they have the space to advocate more boldly only because the FIRST STEP Act is law and not just a bill awaiting a vote.

Ultimately, this piece serves as yet another reminder that how the FIRST STEP Act is implemented and what follows legislatively and politically will ultimately define whether this first step really is more harmful than helpful.  I am still in the optimistic camp on this front, but this commentary provides the best argument for pessimism.

March 12, 2019 at 01:36 PM | Permalink

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