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“They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”
-Jeremiah 6:14 (NRSV)

The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA expresses its opposition to the revised First Step Act, as introduced.  Despite current bipartisan enthusiasm for any move toward criminal justice reform, the First Step Act is insufficient toward that end. This legislation must be judged on its own merits and in that regard, it is sorely lacking. Provisions of this bill provide token sentencing reform measures which do little to address the gigantic problems associated with the mass incarceration crisis.  While compromise is a necessary part of consensus-building around legislation, this bill will have harmful consequences which will be more difficult to correct later.

The NCC has taken a prophetic stance to A.C.T. Now to End Racism that includes, as a top priority, ending the mass incarceration crisis. We seek to transform the nation’s criminal legal system, which is deeply rooted in racism.  The United States is home to 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prison population. The current mass incarceration crisis was birthed out of racist intentions, and we must be just as intentional about addressing the embedded racism if we are to have any meaningful reform. This bill does not move us any closer to justice on either issue. We are in support of the position of JustLeadershipUSA and other national partners of formerly incarcerated persons and advocates in opposition to the bill. Their position is summed up in their policy briefing of the FIRST STEP Act:

[quote]“This country’s criminal legal system harms people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds and economic classes, and it disproportionately harms Black and brown people and immigrants. This bill does not meaningfully address or eradicate that harm, and it is not proportionate to the strength and sacrifice of the directly impacted people who have built a movement to do just that.”[/quote]

Risk assessment tools that will be used to determine eligibility for release have been proven to be racially biased and further entrench racial disparity within the system. Additionally, those who are in most need of programming designed to reduce recidivism are excluded. Immigrants are excluded from many of the bill’s benefits based solely on the basis of immigration status.

While it is encouraging to see the broad support for ending mass incarceration, we are concerned about the trend towards heavy reliance on electronic monitoring. We must be proactive in ensuring that electronic surveillance does not morph into another form of mass incarceration. We are concerned that not only the privacy of the person wearing the monitor is violated, but that of their family and others in close proximity is as well. Electronic monitoring provisions also shift the cost from the government to the directly impacted person which exacerbate economic disparities rooted in race and class.  This and other provisions allow the privatization of certain public functions and feed into and build upon the already burgeoning for-profit prison industry.

The First Step Act contains some positive features, but they, in their current form, fall short. It includes the retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act, but this is conditional upon review that may be denied.  Additionally, the act stipulates that women, who meet certain criteria, will not be shackled while they are pregnant or giving birth, but this and many other non-sentencing provisions are already within Bureau of Prisons policy.  What minimal sentencing reform is in the bill, such as ending life without parole under the three strikes law, is not retroactive. Additionally, the bill includes new mandatory minimums for Fentanyl. We do not want to repeat mistakes made in the “War on Drugs” by incarcerating our way out of the opioid crisis.

We have come to believe that this bill is fatally flawed. We look forward to continuing our work with coalition partners and Congress towards building a justice system based on reconciliation and rehabilitation and that affirms the human dignity and worth of every human being.