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Pressley seeks criminal justice reforms

Reintroduces People’s Justice Guarantee

Riley Robinson
Pressley seeks criminal justice reforms
U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley COURTESY PHOTO

Last week, U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley reintroduced a wide-ranging resolution to overhaul the U.S. criminal-legal system. She first introduced the resolution — called the People’s Justice Guarantee — in November 2019, after consultation with advocates, community groups and people who have experienced incarceration. It proposes reforms to incarceration, immigration and social programs.

“For far too long, Congress has enacted policies that fail millions of men, women and children by expanding our carceral state and divesting from Black and Latinx communities,” Pressley said in remarks delivered on the House floor. “Growing up with an incarcerated parent, these failures are personal to me.”

Since the PJG is a resolution, it wouldn’t become binding law. But resolutions can be used as blueprints for more specific bills, and a statement of legislators’ values and goals. When passed, they express the opinion of the House. Pressley described the PJG as “a bold, progressive vision to transform our criminal-legal system from what it currently is to what it ought to be.”

The first section of the proposal calls for local engagement in the creation of new criminal-justice policy through “assemblies, townhalls, listening sessions, and workshops” in communities directly impacted by mass incarceration. The resolution says lawmakers should repeal the 1994 crime law and replace it with a “community-led public health and safety agenda.”

While this language suggests a grassroots approach, it also includes suggestions for how the federal government can prod state and local governments toward reforms. This includes tax incentives for areas that remove three-strikes laws and minimum-sentencing requirements.

These suggestions are part of a larger section of the resolution that lays out how the United States should significantly decrease the number of people held in prisons and jails. It calls for decriminalizing addiction, homelessness, border crossings, sex work and cannabis and ending the zero-tolerance policies that involve police in school discipline. It suggests funneling more resources toward public-health-oriented responses, like counseling and overdose prevention sites.

The resolution recommends a new kind of first-responder service that would dispatch crisis intervention teams to respond to mental health-related incidents. Pressley already introduced a specific bill to create this service, the Mental Health Justice Act, in October, alongside representatives from California and Pennsylvania. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate by Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates 15% of men and 30% of women held in jails have a serious mental health condition.

The resolution also includes changes to prosecution and release from prison: caps on all prison sentences, standardized sentencing review for minors and standardized timelines for compassionate release of the elderly. It calls for banning the federal death penalty and banning any prosecution of children in adult courts.

Locally, Pressley’s resolution garnered support from Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins.

“I welcome Congresswoman Pressley’s efforts to engage in the conversation about criminal justice and I look forward to partnering with her on many of these important issues,” Rollins said in a press release.

While Pressley’s resolution emphasizes the need for decarceration and limiting the use of imprisonment, it also includes many goals to make carceral settings less harmful for people inside, including better mental and physical health care, expanded visitation and an end to solitary confinement. It calls for people to be incarcerated at the facility closest to their home, protected from forced labor practices and paid federal minimum wage when they’re working. It seeks to restrict the influence of money in the justice system by banning money bail, court fees and all for-profit detention facilities.

At the federal level, it calls for an independent agency to oversee the Department of Homeland Security and the Bureau of Prisons. The agency would investigate civil rights complaints brought by incarcerated people. The Bureau of Prisons oversight is currently done by the Department of Justice’s inspector general, and investigates only complaints brought by employees.

But beyond reforming the criminal and immigration systems as they now stand, Pressley’s resolution takes on broader social policies to address poverty and opportunity in marginalized communities. Some of the policy goals are specific: Provide free public transportation, raise the federal minimum wage to $15, invest $1 trillion to renovate and expand public housing.

Other policy goals are more broadly defined, including “dismantling and rebuilding” the immigration system. It also calls for reparations to Black Americans in “monetary compensation and large-scale social investments.”

“We should provide care for those in crisis, not confine them in solitary,” Pressley said on the House floor. “We should house our immigrant neighbors, not deport them from their communities. We should counsel our kids, not lock them up in prison.”