By Rubez Chong
December 2018 saw the passing of the First Step Act, a bipartisan-supported criminal justice reform bill. Some of its provisions included: easing up mandatory minimum sentences, relaxing the “three strikes” rule to 25 years instead of life imprisonment, enabling inmates to earn “good time credits” and “earned time credits” that can be counted towards early release or transition to halfway houses/home confinement. Though it represents a hopeful shift in criminal justice reform in the US, its impacts on the machinery of mass incarceration are limited in scope, or in the words of journalist German Lopez, it is “one first step for Congress, one tiny step for criminal justice reform.”
The U.S. criminal justice system controls 7 million people; 2.1 million behind bars at any given time, 3.7 million on probation, with another 840,000 on parole. The passing of the bill is projected to lead to the early release of thousands of federal inmates. While not insignificant, the bill only pertains to those on the federal system, which accounts for a fraction of the total number of people held behind bars — the federal system holds 181,000 of the 2.1 million people locked up in federal and state prisons and local jails. Despite the limitations of the bill, it has nonetheless reopened the conversation on criminal justice reform at the federal level; though much more work still needs to be done at the state and local levels.
In this post, I detail the work that we are doing at the MIT Media Lab, Center for Civic Media in addressing prison reform at the state and local levels in Massachusetts. We are particularly concerned with the reentry experience of returning citizens. Our work, thus, aims to design and build the support structure required for successful societal and communal reentry.