Wednesday, December 19, 2018
Much rejoicing is happening following the Senate passage of The First Step Act, which is likely to be passed by the House as well this week. The bill is being touted as a criminal justice reform act. Not only is there bi-partisan support for the bill, there is also support from diverse individuals and groups outside of Congress. The Koch Brothers and the ACLU. Wait - The Kochs and the ACLU? OK- the ACLU is predictable in that the organization is likely to support any bill that provides relief for a class of those incarcerated no matter how limited the group. But why would the Koch brothers support the bill? Simple answers: money for one. Also, the proposed relief will be applied primarily to whites. And passage of the bill will give the president favorable coverage of the new "policies" at a time when favorable headlines for the president are rare.
In a New Yorker article, counsel for Koch Brothers claimed that Koch Industries is much more sensitive to over-reaching prosecutors since the company was prosecuted in 2000 for hiding emissions of toxins at a Texas facility. That matter settled and there is a long time between 2000 and 2018 for a shift in their attitude on criminal justice "reform". A more likely draw for Koch support is the money to be made from the bill. Those same individuals who administer "private" prisons are looking for a slice of the pie for re-entry programs to be established under the bill. Private prisons are known for their poor quality food, the harsh policies toward prisoners and failure to administer necessary medicines, among other criticisms. These are not actors who entertain a human rights approach to "reform". In addition, some legislators attempted to include a term that would require prosecutors to prove intent for corporate crimes. To date those efforts have been resisted.
And who else benefits from the bill? Roughly 4,000 mostly white individuals. And they will be chosen by algorithm. The bill applies "reforms" to those inmates considered to be minimum security risks and those convicted of "non-violent" crimes. Roughly, only 20% of those who will benefit are of color. African Americans are far more likely to be considered higher security risks. African Americans are far more likely to be designated violent.
As noted in Intercept article, Natasha Leonard comments that The First Step Act functions as a compromise because it is not a challenge to the carceral state. Ms. Leonard notes that the only thing notable is its compromise. She notes that this compromise in effect was relinquishment of true change in how criminal justice is administered.
While the bill contains some positive terms, such as more judicial flexibility in sentencing, the bill is far from reformative. If only the commitment to more steps was from Congress. That is unlikely. Proponents are already touting the bill as "sweeping" when in fact the bill benefits only those who are low risk, typically white and a very small fraction of the total inmate population nationally. Congress' revisiting criminal justice "reform" anytime soon is unlikely.