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New Book Details Inner Workings Behind Passage of First Step Act

Movement to End Mass Incarceration Explored as a Symbol That Can Inform Larger Political, Sociological Questions

The First Step Act (FSA), signed into law in 2018, contributed significantly to reversing the incarceration frenzy that had characterized U.S. policy for decades. In a new book, Reform Nation: The First Step Act and the Movement to End Mass Incarceration, a scholar at William Paterson University investigates the national movement that coalesced in the law’s passage. In chronicling the inner workings that led to passage of the FSA, she explains that criminal justice reform had reached a crucial point of national political, economic, and cultural salience and ubiquity, giving it greater reach and mobilizing capacity than at any point in U.S. history.

“The FSA is less important than its exemplification of national-level movement dynamics and divisions,” notes the book’s author, Colleen P. Eren, associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at William Paterson University. “An account of its provisions—and where it fits in the history of federal criminal justice reform in the late 20 th and early 21 st centuries—provides critical contextual information for understanding deeper political and sociological questions.” Eren is an expert whose work is promoted by the Crime and Justice Research Alliance, which is funded by the National Criminal Justice Association.

The FSA is one of the major pieces of federal criminal justice legislation passed since mass incarceration began in the 1970s. At that time, the U.S. incarceration rate was around 200 per 100,000 adults, but would sharply rise until its peak of 1,000 per 100,000 adults between 2006 and 2008. The FSA, which authorized at $75 million per year for five years (or about $400 per incarcerated person), focused on reforms in corrections and sentencing.

The unlikely passage of the bill during a time of political polarization was attributed to the power of a new constellation of advocates, stakeholders, and alliances in the movement to end mass incarceration. Eren suggests that these intriguing and complex dynamics are indicative of a longer, 20-year shift in which the movement became nationalized and mainstreamed. Her book features firsthand accounts from inside the movement by a diverse array of stakeholders, including billionaire philanthropists, celebrities and influencers, corporations, formerly incarcerated people, and national advocates and activists.

In the run-up to the 2024 Presidential election, as calls to defund the police and rising crime rates are hotly debated, the details in Eren’s book raise important questions about how U.S. democratic processes inform criminal justice policy, how social change is enacted, and where the country is headed in the coming decades.

“The FSA’s symbolism and its function as a flashpoint for debate and for illuminating some of the contours and rifts of the reform movement made a fascinating departure point for investigating larger questions about the movement,” says Eren. These include:

  • How and when did criminal justice reform as a national movement emerge, and what spurred that emergence?
  • What issues were included and excluded under the broad “coalition” umbrella of individuals and groups who worked to pass the FSA?
  • Who were the stakeholders and who among them had a seat at the decision-making table?
  • What were the ideological differences within the movement, especially between “right” and “left,” and how were they negotiated?
  • How were decisions about movement objectives made?
  • What strategies and frames were used? Did the infusion of capital in its various forms help or hinder the movement? Was the movement driven from above or from below, and how durable was it?

“Looking forward, there is no reason to believe that efforts to reduce mass incarceration will regress significantly,” says Eren. “However, I also explore the characteristics of the national movement that can render it fragile, fractured, and of limited efficacy in making significant dents in mass incarceration. These considerations help in evaluating how to ensure the longevity and resilience of criminal justice reform despite changing headwinds.”

Summarized from Reform Nation: The First Step Act and the Movement to End Mass Incarceration by Eren, CP (William Paterson University), published by Stanford University Press. Copyright 2023 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. All rights reserved.

Contact Information:
Caitlin Kizielewicz