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November 19, 2019

The Appeal: Ayanna Pressley Hopes the U.S. Can Reduce Its Prison Population by Over 80 Percent

Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts unveiled what she calls an “unapologetically bold” resolution last week intended to significantly reshape the American criminal legal system. In an interview with The Appeal on Friday, Pressley said that she hopes her proposals push her colleagues and the Democratic presidential candidates to consider reforms that they wouldn’t have otherwise. 

Pressley’s resolution, The People’s Justice Guarantee, calls for ending cash bail, decriminalizing sex work, legalizing marijuana, and abolishing the death penalty. It is intended as a blueprint to shift the conversation on criminal justice reform in the same way that the Green New Deal shifted the conversation about climate change, she said.

Before Pressley released her resolution, The Appeal viewed a draft that called for an 80 percent reduction in the prison population by 2035 and for civil citations instead of arrests for drug possession. On Friday, we asked Pressley why she cut those provisions and whether it was an attempt to weaken her calls for reform.

Pressley said her intention was the opposite. 

“The change from the draft to the final version was not because we were in any way shrinking or retracting,” she said. “It is because we actually believe that we can achieve an even greater percentage of decarceration.” 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Much of the debate when it comes to criminal justice reform is between those that advocate for incremental change and those that want a total reset of the legal system. You seem to be advocating for something closer to the latter. Why do you think that’s what’s necessary?

The People’s Justice Guarantee is unapologetically bold. It is a progressive vision for a most just and humane criminal legal system. This is what we wanted to propose rather than tinkering at the edges with legislative proposals because we need an entire reset. This is about changing how we talk about the criminal legal system, how we advocate in the space of these issues, and how we legislate to create an entirely new blueprint for a just society. It’s very basic. The People’s Justice Guarantee simply prioritizes people over profits and punishment. That shouldn’t be anything considered radical. 

In an earlier draft of your resolution, we saw you said you want to reduce incarceration by 80 percent. This would take the U.S. back to 1970 rates of incarceration, and would put America where most western democracies are today. That proposal was much more significant than what any presidential candidate has put forward, and criminal justice advocates say it’s what we should do if we are serious about ending mass incarceration. Why did you remove it?

In developing the People’s Justice Guarantee, we have engaged in a robust people’s process and will continue to. We take our lead from those conversations. What we know is we need a large-scale mass decarceration effort and I’m firmly committed to ensuring that we are creating a society that is less punitive and more humane. We can enact the proposals laid out in my People’s Justice Guarantee, divest from our prison industrial complex, invest in improving the conditions that often lead to violence and trauma. And if we do that, there’s no reason we can’t push beyond 80 percent. 

The change from the draft to the final version was not because we were in any way shrinking or retracting. It is because we actually believe that we can achieve an even greater percentage of decarceration. America locks up 22 percent of the world’s prisoners, despite accounting for only 4 percent of the world’s population, so there is a lot of room to grow there. Ninety-five percent of incarcerated people will re-enter society, anyway, so we’ve got to improve the conditions they return home to as well in order to dismantle the social and economic determinants of incarceration.0

You also removed a provision calling for civil citations instead of arrests for drug possession. Why was that taken out?

Because we have engaged in this robust people’s process, we heard from those closest to the hurt. And so what we’re trying to correct here is unequal justice under the law. We know a fine or arrest can lead to further involvement in the justice system and it can ultimately be the cause of lost employment and wages and separate families from one another. We already know that nearly half a million people are in prison because they can’t afford bail, and those people are disproportionately poor people of color. So civil citations, on their face, might seem like smart policy. In fact, in early stages of the people’s process, the accounts and feedback we were getting from those most impacted led us there. However, there have been studies, particularly in Florida, that show civil citations exacerbate racial disparities and policing and criminalization. Traffic stops, even under the guise of a civil citation, can be deadly for certain communities. What comes to mind is Sandra Bland, Philando Castile. When I’m putting forward solutions to drive mass decarceration, I’m operating from a place of understanding that these policies can have a negative impact on the very communities I’m seeking to help. If we’re undoing one type of harm just to adopt a different form of harm, that is injustice.

Your plan lays the groundwork for massive reforms on the federal level. How do you envision this plan impacting local policies, given how the vast majority of criminal justice policy is set locally? Could progressive prosecutors, like Rachael Rollins in your district, implement anything immediately? 

If we know that 90 percent of incarceration was driven by states and municipalities based on an incentive structure, we can now offer incentives that promote decarceration and do that with states and municipalities. We’re very fortunate in Massachusetts to have the pace-setting, progressive example of Rachael Rollins. She was one of the people that we engaged in this robust people’s process and we’re grateful for her contributions, for example when it comes to the decriminalization of low-level offenses like addiction, homelessness. People like my father. My father cycled in and out of the criminal legal system for some 14 years. My father went to jail, and as a child, I feel like I served that time with him. He’s like millions of Americans in that he committed crimes to support his addiction. He’s not someone who needed to be incarcerated. He’s someone who needed treatment. He’s someone who needed behavioral health, clinical intervention, and support. We have a problem when our criminal legal system by default has become the arbiter of treating substance abuse disorders and mental illness. Once his trauma was treated, then my father could make his contribution to the world. He went on to become a professor of journalism and a published author. 

Your resolution calls for the restoration of voting rights for the incarcerated, an idea that has been gaining momentum this year but is still somewhat in the fringes of Democratic debate. How do you intend to get other Democrats to come around to the idea that this is necessary and worth fighting for?

We just continue to organize and to mobilize and to push people to legislate our values. My colleagues will often talk about the fact that this is the most sacred right. If you are honest about the history in this country and what led to mass incarceration, then you have to acknowledge that by and large, these are folks that have already suffered under institutionalized racism, systemic oppression, that are already marginalized. To deny them access to the ballot, it’s just another way of disenfranchising them. Perhaps we would be further along in transforming the criminal legal system if people were held more accountable to those that are behind the walls. 

Your proposal to decriminalize sex work has gotten a lot of attention. A common critique of lawmakers when it comes to this subject is that they set policy without listening to sex workers themselves. Have you and do you plan to listen to sex workers in the same way you plan to hold townhalls and discussions with formerly incarcerated people to seek input on your resolution? 

I ran a campaign on the value and the practice of the people closest to the pain should be closest to the power, driving and informing the policymaking. That wasn’t a cute hashtag or tagline. That’s something we practice. Yes, we have engaged sex workers and we’ll continue to. Many of them were part of the original rollout. They have contributed to the shaping of the People’s Justice Guarantee on all issues, because this is a comprehensive, intersectional resolution.

The reality is, because of the rampant discrimination that the transgender community faces when it comes to housing and employment, by default, many of them have no other choice but to do sex work. I want to support their safety and their dignity while they are doing that sex work. That means that people that are already being criminalized and punished simply for standing in their truth and showing up in the world exactly as they are should not be preyed upon or experience exploitation, abuse, or brutality. 

Many of the presidential candidates have recently unveiled criminal justice platforms, including Elizabeth Warren who you endorsed. Are the candidates’ proposals enough? Do you hope that your resolution affects their platforms in addition to affecting the local administration of criminal justice policy? 

I think this is the boldest, most transformative vision that has been put forward. Just by introducing it into the discourse, it’s already level-setting. It’s raising the ceiling. As an example, I raised during the voting rights debate an amendment to lower the voting age in federal elections to 16. That became a question that was asked of many 2020ers. Last night, I was at a vigil on the steps of the Supreme Court in support of Rodney Reed, who is innocent and should not be put to death. Advocates in that space have been advocating for Rodney for 20 years and for a movement to abolish the death penalty for just as long. Now, 2020ers are being asked about that. I think that because we’ve put something this visionary and this bold, it is pace-setting in its own right. Candidates will ask different questions of themselves. This shifted our own paradigm and thinking of these issues, and what we were led by was this people’s process. When people ask me why I introduced this with no co-sponsors, I say, “There are co-sponsors. It’s the people.” Now I will get to the work of educating my colleagues on this and building our legislative co-sponsors.