Prison reform is now in vogue, but police power remains as brutal as ever. Policing in the US continues to include the power to cage as well as the power to kill — a reality that is spectacularly evident at the southern US border. By all accounts, 2019 promises to be another brutal year in the arena of prisons and policing.
President Trump signed the First Step Act in late December, while threatening a government shutdown to secure funding for a border wall. The act makes it easier for some federal prisoners to seek early release, widens federal judicial discretion in some low-level sentencing issues and limits some mandatory minimum sentences in federal cases.
It is a limited reform program, less because federal prisoners account for just over 10 percent of the prison system and more because the crafters of the bill had such limited ambitions. The Koch-backed act defines reform through expanded “e-carceration,” the use of surveillance technologies like ankle monitors that turn people’s homes into their prisons.
This move follows similar efforts at the state level. In eliminating cash bail, for instance, California implemented similar digital surveillance and algorithmic “risk assessment.” The move led many activists who had campaigned against cash bail to withdraw their support for the bill before it passed.
The growing significance of e-carceration is not the only warning sign about how politicians broker criminal legal reform. In Florida, the incoming Republican governor and some state legislators are threatening to block the will of nearly two-thirds of the state’s electorate by refusing to honor a ballot initiative that called for the restoration of voting rights to 1.5 million formerly incarcerated people.
Reaction is also on the march in St. Louis, where assistant prosecutors joined a police union in seeming protest of the election of reform-minded City Council member Wesley Bell to the district attorney position. Bell, the first Black person elected as St. Louis County prosecutor, defeated Bob McCulloch, the district attorney whose cavalier approach to the shooting of Michael Brown led officer Darren Wilson to escape accountability for the killing.
The dangers of repression are, as always, most cruelly applied in prison, where new waves of crackdown preceded the midterm election. Around the country, many participants in the 2018 national prison strike were placed in solitary confinement or faced other repercussions for demanding better health care, wages and union representation for labor, the restoration of voting rights and other basic human rights. Bowing to the prison guard union, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections implemented harsh censorship restrictions over the summer, even if activists forced them to scale back the severity.
To repression action must be added the cynical danger of opportunism. Several Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls routinely but vaguely call for “criminal justice reform.” Among the most consistent voices in this vein is California Sen. Kamala Harris, who spent her time as a prosecutor and state attorney general upholding “tough on crime” laws when it came to the drug war and the struggles of incarcerated people. Her grim record pales next to that of another 2020 contender, former Vice President Joe Biden, who championed harsh sentencing laws as a senator throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Even without such baggage, other likely 2020 candidates, including New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, have pledged “reform” without substance.
Radical critics of the prison system, including abolitionists and grassroots organizers in and out of prison, have a difficult—but familiar—task in 2019. It involves at least three simultaneous efforts. First, we need to advance our own policy platforms that can supplant the narrowness of the current prison reform agenda with an emphasis on mass decarceration, community reinvestment, full civil and human rights for currently and formerly incarcerated people, and non-punitive approaches to harm. Doing so means growing across movements as well as bringing new people into the fold.
Second, we need to expose and exploit the fault lines within the extreme center in the hopes of channeling sincere efforts into transformative change and undermining the cynical and failed policies of right-wing prison reform. That requires monitoring and challenging the contemporary reform agenda.
Finally, we need to both push for a seat at the table—especially for currently and formerly incarcerated people—while changing the table itself. Now is the time to hold people’s feet to the fire, not genuflect at the halls of power.
It is all easier said than done, of course, but it is also already in process. The Movement for Black Lives platform (as well as a recent robust critique of the First Step Act) and the demands from the 2018 national prison strike are both excellent models of crafting the kind of policy platforms we need. So too is the push for a Green New Deal, which remains the most promising example of federal criminal legal reform, even though it does not (yet) make any mention of criminal legal issues. The full employment and just transition vision of the Green New Deal offer far more promising avenues to reduce the country’s reliance on policing and incarceration than much of what transpires under the mantle of prison reform.
The federal government is likely to remain a lost cause for the foreseeable future. There’s little chance of enacting progressive legislation regarding criminalization in a sphere governed by people so fully committed to the carceral state. More to the point, the most significant action remains at the state and local level, where almost 90 percent of those incarcerated are held, and where people are most likely to encounter police or other agents of the carceral state. That is why local, rural jail expansion—often funded by the federal government—threatens to grow the number of people incarcerated while many people fawn over the passage of a tepid federal reform package.
As always, the path toward decarceration, reinvestment and transformation requires fighting on multiple fronts simultaneously: pushing back against the hardliners, pushing beyond what the extreme center will allow and pushing for the changes we really need. While this stance may seem familiar, it will require greater urgency and clarity as “prison reform” occupies center stage.