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November 27, 2019

Real Change News: New Kind of Justice

Ayanna Pressley remembers running for reelection to the Boston City Council in 2011, when a constituent asked her what she was going to do about the homeless people who were sleeping on park benches.

“They used some other term that was very derogatory,” Pressley recounted in a recent interview with Real Change News. “They said, ‘what is your plan to make our parks safe?’”

Pressley responded that her plan was “to end homelessness.”

Now a U.S. congresswoman, Pressley said she has a plan that will not only help accomplish that, but will also transform the criminal justice and legal system, which she said perpetuates homelessness. 

On Nov. 14, Pressley unveiled a resolution titled “The People’s Justice Guarantee,” which “lays out a bold, new vision for justice in the American criminal legal system,” according to a press release issued by her office. The plan’s priorities include eliminating life sentences without parole, abolishing the death penalty, private prisons and solitary confinement, and decriminalizing sex work and other low-level offenses, “which are byproducts of poverty, homelessness, discrimination and/or addiction,” according to the release. The plan is based on five principles: shared power, freedom, equality, safety and dignity.

Pressley said the status quo of the current criminal legal system is “fundamentally flawed” and that a new vision is needed.

“It is xenophobic and racist, and just tinkering at the edges with legislative reforms is not going to be enough,” Pressley said. “We need to do something bold and transformative.”

She said that by prioritizing decarceration, it is possible to cut the prison population by 80 percent or more. To accomplish this goal, Pressley said we need to stop punishing poor people for being poor.

“In order to reduce our incarcerated population by the 80 percent plus that we believe is possible, it means that we need to decriminalize poverty, and that means decriminalizing those that are experiencing homelessness,” Pressley said. 

“That means decriminalizing fare-evasion,” she said. 

“There are so many people experiencing homelessness who do evade fares [on] public transit just to get to [a] shelter before curfew, or to try to be gainfully employed,” Pressley said. “And they just don’t have the money, and they should not be arrested and experience punitive consequences simply for trying to get on a better path.”  

Another key aspect to her plan, Pressley said, is access to housing.

“The People’s Justice Guarantee will invest $1 trillion in the modernization and expansion of social housing stock throughout the country,” Pressley said. “It guarantees housing for survivors of crime and, again, it decriminalizes homelessness, which we know eliminates reinceration for individuals who failed to secure housing.”

And many who are released from prison currently do fail to secure housing, Pressley said.

“In Massachusetts, I think at one point, 30 percent of those being released from correctional facilities were being released directly to shelter,” Pressley said. “That is not a recipe to support formerly incarcerated men and women in getting on a pathway to gainful employment [and] self-sufficiency.

“In fact, housing is such a critical determinant … that when people don’t have that, we know that it contributes to recidivism,” Pressley said. “So it is really disingenuous to say, ‘OK, now you’ve received maybe some training behind the wall …’ and then to say, ‘now go into the world and make a legitimate contribution and make your best contribution’ when people are experiencing housing discrimination, employment discrimination and, again many are being released directly to shelter.”

Too often, people will see those experiencing homelessness as the other and will marginalize them instead of seeing them as members of the community, Pressley said.

“I think that often because most people are disconnected from their own reality, which is that many people are a life disruption away from experiencing homelessness,” Pressley said. “They are one government shutdown away, one illness, one layoff, one defaulted student loan away from experiencing homelessness.”

As a child growing up in Chicago, she experienced firsthand the impact incarceration can have on families, as her father, who battled substance abuse disorder, was often incarcerated.

Pressley spoke about her father’s struggle during a congressional hearing earlier this year. She said that while her father was incarcerated and in the throes of addiction, “our entire family was serving with him.”

“My father was in and out of the criminal justice system because of crimes he committed while battling a substance abuse disorder. I know intimately the destabilization, the stigma, the social shame and isolation of having a loved one who is incarcerated,” she said.

Her father was later able to “do incredible things,” Pressley said, including obtaining two advanced degrees, becoming a college journalism professor and a published author. 

“I’m very proud of him,” Pressley said.

When asked about her experience growing up, Pressley said that her story “is one of millions.”

“I think my job as a legislator is not just to take up space, but it’s to create space,” Pressley said. “That’s something that we put into practice in the developing of every legislation that we have offered, which is to create space and to bring a seat to the table for those who are closest to the hurt and the pain who have been directly impacted.

“And we know by staying acutely uncomfortable and listening to those stories, it ensures that we never grow complacent in the work,” Pressley said. “But it’s also by being in the proximity to the hurt and by actively listening and leaning in where we find the best solutions.”