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Congress’s Criminal Justice Reform Act boosts privatization, fails to dismantle mass incarceration, nor does it implement sentencing reform. We speak to Eddie Conway and Natasha Pratt Harris about the proposed reform

Criminal Justice reform, First Step Act, Mass Incarceration, US Congress, Trump & Crime, Eddie Conway, Natasha Pratt Harris, Marc Steiner

Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: I’m Marc Steiner. I’m here with Eddie Conway, Executive Producer here at The Real News and host of Rattling the Bars, Dr. Natasha Pratt-Harris, Associate Professor and Criminal Justice Coordinator at Morgan State University, and Aajah Harris, who is SGA President at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore and a criminal justice major.

So let’s talk about what will happen if this bill passes. And it certainly looks like it will pass, as some conservative amendments will even push further back to making it not as important. But press-wise, in terms of the view of the American people seeing this, it can have a huge effect politically because it looks as if real reform is happening when it’s not. So what do you think that will mean? Because I’m curious, very quickly with three different perspectives. Natasha, let’s start with you. And I’m curious with your generation, Aajah, what you think this will mean in terms of the political battle for your generation. And then will close out with Eddie. Natasha?

NATASHA PRATT-HARRIS: Well, in less than twenty-four months we’ll be voting for the president again, the general election.

MARC STEINER: Good lord.

NATASHA PRATT-HARRIS: And quite frankly, the media will plug this as a hot topic and acknowledge that there’s been some reform if this actually passes. And you’ll probably get some people who are going to go on the Trump side saying wow, he actually did something, and while we have these issues, criminal justice reform is one of my things. Obama wasn’t able to do X, Y, or Z, but that’s partly because we aren’t necessarily well versed, again, in what criminal justice reform looks like really and/or what may have happened in previous administrations because it was not necessarily popular. When Obama visited the prisons, when he eliminated solitary confinement for juveniles, when he brought back the Pell Grant as a temporary stay to see about people getting an education while incarcerated, those things weren’t played up. Obama’s presidency in particular wasn’t necessary a criminal justice reform presidency. Trump may very well look like that if this particular bill passes.

MARC STEINER: And one of the things that they’re not mentioning here that I think Senators Booker and Harris said, along with Holder, is that this didn’t have to even be a bill. Most of the things in this bill could have been an executive order. This is just a show, it’s a game. How do think it will affect, politically, your generation?

AAJAH HARRIS: I think that it would open up a whole new can of worms when it comes to federal versus state laws, because it doesn’t affect the state laws. It will not positively affect the crimes that are happening more in an abundance, like the more people crimes. The federal crimes are more committed by those who have money and then the state crimes are committed by a lot of people who don’t have money, crimes of necessity, like you need to do this in order to feed your families, that thing. So it’s going to open up a whole new can of worms for the state government to have to now have a bill or executive order, something of that sort, to make it seem like they’re also falling in line with what Donald Trump is doing in terms of having a foot in on criminal justice reform, but it’s really not criminal justice reform.

MARC STEINER: Eddie Conway.

EDDIE CONWAY: Yeah. And I think what will change after this is over is it’ll be good PR press, as it’s been stated already, for Trump and the Republicans, the Koch brothers. But what’s really important, it’s going to privatize the incarcerational state. It’s going to privatize the amount of agencies that’s incarcerating people out beyond the prison walls. And so, even though it looks like the population of prisons are going down, in fact, the population of prisoners will be increasing. And it will be private money that will be spent and families will be paying for their loved ones to be on electronic monitoring or tested and so on. And so, they’re privatizing prisons and they’re expanding them into poor and Black communities.

MARC STEINER: I think that will be, to me, the real trick politically, to explain to the American people what’s really happening here when you have this brave new world of incarceration that doesn’t look like incarceration, it doesn’t appear like incarceration. And actually, in some ways, that might be something that American people, in their paranoia about all this, could actually relate to, how Big Brother is kind of taking over everything, including what’s happening to poor people in this country with incarceration. I mean, this has political potential on both sides for the looming battle ahead with this half step, no step bill.


EDDIE CONWAY: The jail next door.

MARC STEINER: Well, this is always great. Eddie Conway, I really appreciate all the work you do here at Real News and bringing these things to our attention. Dr. Natasha Pratt-Harris has been a guest of mine for years and it’s great to have you here, thank you so much.

NATASHA PRATT-HARRIS: Thank you for having me.

MARC STEINER: And Aajah Harris, good luck as the incoming SGA President.

NATASHA PRATT-HARRIS: Current president.

MARC STEINER: Current president at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. That’s right, we’re in the midst of winter break. What year is this?


MARC STEINER: It’s good to have you all here, this has been great. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News. Thank you all for joining us, great to have you with us. Take care.

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Executive Producer
Eddie Conway is an Executive Producer of The Real News Network. He is the host of the TRNN show Rattling the Bars. He is Chairman of the Board of Ida B's Restaurant, and the author of two books: Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther and The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Eddie Conway is an internationally known political prisoner for over 43 years, a long time prisoners' rights organizer in Maryland, the co-founder of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program, and the President of Tubman House Inc. of Baltimore. He is a national and international speaker and has several degrees.

Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.