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November 20, 2019

Bay State Banner: Pressley pushes for justice system reform

U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley last week announced a resolution calling for sweeping criminal justice reforms aimed at decreasing the number of people incarcerated, on probation or otherwise involved in the nation’s criminal justice system.

In a phone conference with reporters Wednesday, Pressley, whose father suffered from addiction and spent time in jail, said the reach of the nation’s criminal justice system has affected many more than the 2.3 million people behind bars at any given time.

“Like the one-in-four people in my district with a parent behind bars, I grew up with a parent in and out of the legal system,” she said. “I’ve seen first-hand the effects of criminal and racial injustice and the trauma it causes for families and entire communities.”

Pressley’s policy recommendations include reducing the nation’s jail population; expanding mental health services and substance abuse treatment; eliminating elements of the system such as cash bail that exacerbate unequal treatment of low-income people; and banning private businesses from profiting from incarceration.

“When one out of every four people in the world who are locked away in cages are in America — most of whom are black and brown — it becomes our moral imperative to do something,” she said.

Because much of criminal justice policy is enacted at the state and local level, the federal government has limited control over local policies such as the death penalty or solitary confinement. If passed, Pressley’s resolution would codify congressional support for broad guidelines aimed at changing the nation’s approach to criminal justice at both the federal and local level.

“The federal government has a tremendous impact on the operation of the American legal system at the federal, state, and local levels and can push for a more humane, dignified, and just society for all,” Pressley writes in the resolution.

More than just a reform approach, Pressley’s plan would fundamentally change the nation’s approach to criminal justice to undo what she says are years of racially-biased policies that have had a disproportionate effect on people of color.

“The criminal legal system is racist, xenophobic, rogue and fundamentally flawed,” she told reporters. “It must be dismantled and radically transformed through a large-scale decarceration effort.”

Pressley’s policy outlines principles she says should govern the way criminal justice is meted out in the United States, including shared decisionmaking that would allow for members communities affected by mass incarceration to have a say in criminal justice reform. Pressley is also advocating that those serving time for what she calls the “failed policies of the 1994 war on drugs crime bill” should be set free.

“Prison should be a last resort, not a first stop,” Pressley writes in her resolution.

Her policy calls for diversion programs — such as drug treatment — that are aimed at preventing repeat offenses, as well as community service and restorative justice, a process through which defendants are given an opportunity to make things right with victims of crime through restitution or other means.

“We need to change our criminal justice system to focus on early intervention, prioritize rehabilitation over incarceration and punishment, and provide a clear pathway for formerly incarcerated individuals to reintegrate into society,” she said.

Pressley engaged 20 grassroots organizations and individuals affected by criminal justice system to develop her recommendations.

Among the recommendations in the resolution are:

  • An end to solitary confinement
  • Expanding visitation
  • Free phone calls for prisoners
  • Allowing transgender people to be housed in accordance with their chosen gender identity
  • Removing post-release restrictions that prevent ex-offenders from obtaining employment and public services such as education and housing.

    Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins said he agrees with much of Pressley’s assessment of the criminal justice system.

    “Our criminal justice system is a broken system and there are elements of racism in it,” he said, noting that he is the sole sheriff of color in the state’s 14 counties and that only one of the state’s 11 district attorneys is a person of color and just two are women.

    Tompkins said he agrees with criminal justice reform advocates such as Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, who oppose jailing people for low-level misdemeanors, and also said he’s opposed to mandatory minimum sentences.

    Pressley is also calling for broader changes that she says would decrease the number of people entering the criminal justice system, such as increasing funding to prevent homelessness, fight addiction and other social factors that lead to criminality.

    In addition, she calls for an end to the practice of transferring military equipment to police and a limiting of firearm manufacture and sales.

    Speaking to reporters, she stressed the disproportionate effect the nation’s punitive approach to criminal justice has had on blacks, citing what she said were the influence of slavery, lynching and Jim Crow laws on current policy.

    “By acknowledging this legacy and the impact it’s had on our black and brown communities, our immigrant communities,” she said, “we provide ourselves with the chance to fundamentally change it.”