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Cover of Reform Nation by Colleen P. Eren
Reform Nation
The First Step Act and the Movement to End Mass Incarceration
Colleen P. Eren


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September 2023
282 pages.
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Hardcover ISBN: 9781503613355
Paperback ISBN: 9781503636736
Ebook ISBN: 9781503636743

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How one law tells the story of America's modern criminal justice movement

In late 2018, the First Step Act was signed into law by President Donald Trump just hours before a government shutdown. It was one of few major pieces of federal criminal justice reform since the 1970s to move toward reversing the incarceration frenzy that had characterized United States policy. While it did not amount to revolutionary reform, in Reform Nation, Colleen P. Eren investigates it as a symbol for the larger movement's trajectory. Its unlikely passage during a period of political polarization was testament to the power of a new constellation of advocates, stakeholders, and strange bedfellow alliances.

These intriguing and complex dynamics are indicative of a longer, twenty-year shift in which the movement became nationalized and mainstreamed. Using in-depth interviews with major players in the national movement, formerly incarcerated activists, celebrities, and donors, this is the first book to turn the mirror back on the criminal justice reform movement itself—the frames used, the voices heard, the capital activated among elite participants, and the bitter controversies. This snapshot in time raises much larger questions about how our democratic processes inform criminal justice policy, and where we are going in the decades to come.

About the author

Colleen P. Eren is Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at William Paterson University. She is the author of Bernie Madoff and the Crisis (Stanford, 2017) and co-author (with Robert Costello) of The Impact of Supreme Court Decisions on U.S. Institutions (2021).

"A critical look behind the scenes at the way 'criminal justice reform' has blossomed into not just a movement but also, at times, a kind of industry. Eren's book is vital to our understanding of how change happens—and doesn't."

—Baz Dreisinger, author, Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World

"Reform Nation is well-timed for the current moment in criminal justice reform. Colleen Eren captures the political and social dynamics of recent years and lays out a compelling set of issues and challenges for the reform movement moving forward."

—Marc Mauer, Senior Advisor, The Sentencing Project

"Reform Nation is an invaluable and timely gift. This lively, behind-the scenes narrative brilliantly documents the emergence of a broad, bipartisan, and highly effective justice reform coalition. Energized by the leadership of justice-impacted individuals, this coalition brings together business leaders, philanthropists, civil rights advocates, religious organizations and strange-bedfellow politicians. By comparing this political development with other social movements, and contrasting this consensus with the realities of our deeply divided democracy, Eren elevates her narrative to that rare scholarly voice that speaks to the challenges of the moment. Reform Nation offers reasons for hope and caution at a time when our forward momentum faces new winds of opposition. This book should serve as a new guide for the justice reform movement in the next chapter of a long struggle."

—Jeremy Travis, Senior Fellow at the Justice Lab at Columbia University, President Emeritus, John Jay College of Criminal Justice

"Eren's book is a masterful account of how grassroots activism on a cause that very few people really cared about blossomed into a win for not just better treatment of people convicted of certain crimes but a better use of tax dollars. She blends original interviews with major players in the reform movement with great storytelling and a sociological framework that illuminates the complexities of all reform efforts."

—Nick Gillespie, Reason