As thousands of firefighters, many of whom are currently incarcerated, battle one of the most devastating environmental catastrophes California has ever experienced, Donald Trump embraces the First Step Act, a bill that reinforces the blistering racism and capitalistic policies that have subjected millions of Black, Brown, and poor bodies to local, state, and federal criminal justice systems.
Mass incarceration impacts all aspects of life for so many Californians and Americans. We work in a collaborative formation that many call a movement, with the intent and desire to set our communities free from a system that has devastated our communities for generations. Currently, we work under a particular kind of duress, as there is an administration in place that has not only affirmed and validated the state violence that we fight, but gregariously celebrated it. To have Van Jones and others come to Los Angeles in this moment, and extol the virtues of Trump’s destructive and amoral administration and call him a “uniter-in-chief” was an example of irresponsible advocates supporting a divisive policy that continues the denigration of people who are incarcerated, including immigrants.
“The Trump administration has not and is not embracing reform,” Phal Sok, a member of JusticeLA and the Youth Justice Coalition explains. “Characterizing an endorsement of the First Step Act as such is not only myopic, it disregards his relentless attacks on our communities. As part of the collective movement for liberation, JusticeLA stands in strong opposition to local and national forces that seek to expand the reach of incarceration and call reform.”
Those, like Van Jones, who traffic in policy efforts that serve to expand the reach of the prison industrial complex in order to secure political footing, do so while exploiting the desperation, vulnerability, and trauma of impacted people and sanctioning an administration peddling fascism and white supremacy. Liberal accomplices of Trump-endorsed policies do so at the risk of obscuring the administration’s actual agenda – increasing the criminalization, incarceration and deportation of LGBTQIA+ communities, refugees and Black and Brown people from America’s “ghettos” and “shithole countries.”
Earlier this year, JusticeLA voiced our opposition to the bill. We can only hope that some good can come of it, and we appreciate those who fought to make key changes to the bill, namely adding some sentencing reform, limiting DOJ and warden discretion, and demanding oversight for disturbing provisions like the development and implementation of algorithmic based risk assessment instruments. Those changes are ultimately not enough to mitigate what is in the end, a harmful bill that expands the mass criminalization and surveillance of our communities, or what Michelle Alexander describes as “the newest Jim Crow.” The First Step Act does not represent real reform. It carves out those most vulnerable to the revolving door impacts of mass imprisonment, and manages to create more bureaucracy. This bill is weaker than prior federal criminal justice reform efforts, while also placing potential implementation in the hands of an administration that openly endorses “zero tolerance” policies that have led to family separation and the incarceration of thousands. “In many respects, we’re getting very much tougher on the truly bad criminals — of which, unfortunately, there are many,” Trump declared. If Trump does in fact keep his word, the First Step Act will be yet another tool of a corrupt and punitive administration.