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November 14, 2019

The Root: Ayanna Pressley’s Latest Resolution Is a Sweeping Progressive Vision That Would Transform America’s Legal System

Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley introduced on Thursday a comprehensive criminal justice resolution package that would massively restructure America’s legal system—and fundamentally reshape the role prisons and jails play in American life.

Titled “the People’s Justice Guarantee,” the resolution is a progressive vision of justice that is being touted as “the most progressive and comprehensive plan for overhauling the criminal legal system by a member of Congress,” according to a press release. On top of dozens of legislative proposals, Pressley’s resolution looks to undo decades of policies that have created a mass incarceration crisis.

“The criminal legal system is racist, xenophobic, rogue, and fundamentally flawed beyond reform,” the congresswoman told reporters on a Wednesday call. “It must be dismantled and radically transformed through a large-scale decarceration effort.”

With nearly a quarter of all the world’s prisoners housed in American jails and prisons, Pressley’s resolution also aims to reframe how we think about the country’s criminal justice system. As The Appeal’s Kira Lerner observes, the People’s Justice Guarantee could “redefine the national debate on criminal justice in the same ways the Green New Deal is intended to shape discussion of climate change.”

The resolution is organized around five core principles: shared power, freedom, equality, safety, and dignity. “Shared power,” for instance, refers to community involvement in decarceration efforts through workshops, assemblies, and town halls, while “equality” captures reforms like abolishing private prison, jail, and immigrant detention contracts.

The ambitious proposal calls for a systemic overhaul of nearly every aspect of our current prison system, from policing to prosecution to sentencing. It would repeal the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, as well as policies instilled during America’s failed “War on Drugs.” Police departments would be demilitarized and the death penalty would be abolished, as would life sentences without parole. Consensual sex work and low-level offenses like loitering would be decriminalized, and access to restorative justice and diversion programs would be expanded—making rehabilitation and community service programs the default for petty, victimless crimes.

Working in tandem, these reforms would make prison sentences applicable only to crimes committed with an intent to cause harm.

The way jails and prisons operate would also be transformed. Pressley’s resolution calls for an end to solitary confinement—which has been deemed “torture” by prison experts and psychologists—and would expand educational and vocational opportunities, including Pell Grants. Forced labor would also be abolished.

Among the most striking and transformative proposals in Pressley’s sweeping criminal justice package is restoring voting rights to the incarcerated—a move that would transform voting districts throughout the country. The resolution also emphasizes a “just transition” for the formerly incarcerated, removing employment and housing restrictions for those re-entering society, and granting access to education assistance. Permeating these proposals is an insistence on the humanity of those incarcerated—that they deserve a political voice, and that it is a moral imperative to help them readjust to life outside prison. That this approach feels novel speaks to how profoundly the incarcerated have been marginalized.

Pressley said the resolution was crafted with the help of 20 grassroots organizations and people directly impacted by the prison system—a group that includes Pressley herself.

“For me, this is personal,” Pressley told reporters. “Like the one in four children in my district with a parent behind bars, I grew up with a parent in and out of the legal system.”

The People’s Justice Guarantee has so far racked up a number of endorsements from prominent civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Color of Change, UndocuBlack, URGE: Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity, and the National Immigrant Justice Center.

Pressley stressed that it was the country’s “moral obligation” to reform the criminal justice system.

“When we sentence any person, that is a shared sentence with their families and their communities,” she said. “We must look beyond the worst thing we’ve ever done and center their humanity. That’s how we get to freedom. That’s how we achieve safety. That’s how we guarantee justice.”