Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) says the latest criminal justice reform bill passed by the Senate is far from a comprehensive overhaul of America’s broken prison system.
Sen. Booker was one of the original authors of the FIRST STEP Act and negotiated over the course of five years to get it in its current form– making some compromises with Republicans and at times withdrawing support until key reforms were included.
“I don’t view this as anything but a good solid substantive step, just one step on a mile long journey,” Booker told theGrio in an exclusive interview.
“We have a long way to go on criminal justice reform, ranging from police accountability measures all the way to issues of reentry and community empowerment.”
The bill will only impact the federal prison system, which has 180,000 inmates compared to the 2.5 million more in local and state prison. Supporters estimate it will affect 50,000 inmates over the course of 10 years.
“we cannot misinterpret progress for success. We’ve a lot more work to do.”
-Sen. Cory BOOKER
Among the package of reforms it includes, Sen. Booker says he is proud that the bill effectively ends juvenile solitary confinement, stops “three strikes to life” sentencing, and reduces extreme prison sentences based upon crack vs. cocaine disparities
“Making The Fair Sentencing Act… retroactive immediately will affect between two and three thousand people, now having pathways to liberation 90 percent of whom are Black,” Booker told theGrio.
“The fixes are going to have a disproportionate impact in favor of the African-American community.“
When asked about criticisms of the bill that it will exacerbate racial injustice, with provisions that include heavy electronic monitoring (something private prison companies like GEO Group benefit from) and “risk-assessment” tools that would use algorithms to determine which prisoners are eligible for release, Booker says he understands people’s concerns but believes the bill has safeguards.
“That’s something that was a major concern of mine as well as civil rights communities,” Sen. Booker tells theGrio. “That’s the reason why we have an independent nonpartisan group designing that risk assessment tool. There’ll be a lot of transparency in it and it will be over multiple years so there’ll be a lot of ability for community input, civil rights community input. We tried to take steps to to govern against the racial biases or disparate racial impact that might result from the risk assessment tool.”
When asked about another major critique of the bill– that it only applies to non-violent offenders– Sen. Booker acknowledges that excluding these prisoners is an unfair compromise.
“I think it’s deeply unfair that there doesn’t seem to be the appetite to extend the ideals of second chance, of restorative justice to people who are so-called “violent criminals,” Booker told theGrio. “I say so-called violent criminals because often people who are labeled as violent criminals never picked up a gun, never raised a fist.“
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“We will never deal with mass incarceration if we restrict ideas of mercy and redemption to only one low-level nonviolent criminals.“
Booker’s next order of business will be advocating for “Ban The Box” legislation, which wouldn’t allow employers to ask someone about their criminal record until further along into a screening.
For Black Americans who already face discrimination in the hiring process, this safeguard could be one way to address the economic injustice they face.
“This is is a significant victory. I’m proud of the role that I played along with others. But it’s not the victory we seek. It’s progress but what we cannot misinterpret progress for success. We’ve a lot more work to do.“