In late 2018, when President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act into law, it became one of just a few major pieces of federal criminal justice reform since the 1970s to move toward reversing the U.S. policies focused on mass incarceration.
In her new book Reform Nation: The First Step Act and the Movement to End Mass Incarceration (Stanford University Press), Colleen P. Eren, a William Paterson University associate professor of sociology and criminal justice, explores how a diverse coalition of stakeholders—from celebrities and major corporations to advocates and legislators—were able to come together to pass federal legislation around criminal justice reform for the first time in decades.
“Many people thought reform was not possible,” says Eren, “especially since it was a progressive bill that passed during a time of heightened polarization during the Trump era.”
Eren, who has been involved in the criminal justice reform movement for nearly two decades as an educator and advocate, says she began her research in late 2019, a year after the bill was signed, and a time of great promise for the movement. “I was interested in examining the First Step Act as an example of how people can come together and reach consensus to move progress forward in the criminal justice reform movement,” she says.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, followed by the George Floyd murder and numerous protests against the police. While polls at the time showed widespread support for police reform, the rate of violent crime, including homicide, increased across the country. “The issue of crime and reform measures became rapidly more toxic, divisive, and recentered in public and political discourse, especially as the slogan ‘defund the police’ took center stage,” she writes.
In researching the book, Eren conducted more than 50 interviews, providing first-hand, insider accounts from leaders across broad and interesting stakeholder groups, including billionaire philanthropists bankrolling the movement, celebrities, formerly incarcerated people, and national advocates about their involvement, goals, strategies, and tactics in the movement.
What she believes the book documents is that there is still great possibility for progress in criminal justice reform. “Organizations on both the right and the left continue to work together for state reform,” she says. “Looking forward, there is no reason to think that we will go back. However, what I also explore are the characteristics of the national movement that can render it fragile, fractured, and of limited efficacy in making significant dents in mass incarceration. These are considerations that help in evaluating how to ensure its longevity and resilience despite changing headwinds.”
Eren is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and a member of the Crime and Justice Research Alliance, a partnership of leading authorities from the nation's two premier criminal justice associations. She is the author of four books, including Bernie Madoff and the Crisis: The Public Trial of Capitalism (Stanford University Press, 2017). She also has published scholarly research on a variety of criminal justice issues including capital punishment, white-collar crime, criminal justice education, crime and media, and the criminal justice reform movement. Eren is a contributing writer for Discourse Magazine, and her opinions have been published in the New York Times and RealClear Politics, among others.
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