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January 16, 2020

Bay State Banner: Pressley, Lee advance criminal justice reforms

U.S. Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Barbara Lee probed the “State of Black America” last weekend during the Congressional Black Caucus’s first-ever visit to Massachusetts. Both representatives spoke with the Banner last Friday about Pressley’s decarceration initiative — the People’s Justice Guarantee — and advocated for the Ending PUSHOUT Act, legislation focused on keeping black girls in school and reducing unjust expulsions.   

Lee especially stressed the systemic barriers ingrained in both America’s prisons and schools that she said create a “pipeline” that drives kids to incarceration. Fundamental barriers are hard to uproot unless “we shake things up,” she said.

“The racism is so embedded, the injustice so systemic, that it has to be transformed and radically reimagined,” added Pressley. “We can’t just tinker at the edges with incremental reforms.”

That’s why Pressley devised the People’s Justice Guarantee “North Star” set to radically transform the criminal legal system and guide America towards decarceration. Pressley hopes to achieve 80 percent decarceration by implementing sweeping changes; her proposal includes federally banning the death penalty, prohibiting life without parole, and decriminalizing low-level offenses.

“Prison should be a last resort,” she said. “Not the first.”

The United States is currently the world leader in incarceration, with a prison population that has increased 500 percent over the last 40 years. The penal system’s incessant growth partially stems from the repercussions of federal and state legislation introduced in the 1990s that funded the expansion of federal prisons and created mandatory minimum sentences for a variety of nonviolent offenses. Pressley pointed to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, passed by Congress in 1994.

“In the same way that the 1994 crime bill incentivized mass incarceration, we can incentivize mass decarceration,” Pressley said.

Pressley said that 1 in 4 children in District 7 have an incarcerated loved one. She acknowledged the heartache of losing a parent to the system — her own father struggled with addiction and spent much of her childhood behind bars. Pressley experienced the aftereffects of drug criminalization and destabilized families firsthand.

Pressley addressed her father’s disease: “He was committing crimes to support [an] addiction,” she said. “My father wasn’t a criminal. What my father deserved was on-demand treatment to address the deep-seated traumas that caused him to self-medicate.”

Pressley’s People’s Justice Guarantee operates on five guiding principles. Principle number 4, which prioritizes safety, calls for a severance of the cycle of violence caused by over-policing minority populations. Pressley hopes to protect vulnerable communities by eliminating lengthy sentences for minor charges. Pressley also focuses on freedom, shared power, equality and dignity.

Pressley recently returned from a visit to Lee’s California district, where both representatives investigated Santa Rita Jail. The designated “mega-jail” houses 4,000 inmates, maintaining its rank as the fifth-largest facility nationwide. A recent report found that 45 inmates had died since 2014, including 17 suicides. The report also noted that several of the inmates were kept in isolation, with extremely limited human contact or access to the outdoors.

Mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow, said Lee, referring a Michelle Alexander book chronicling the restructuring of America’s inequity. The book claims, “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”    

Pressley said that barriers for female inmates begin with a lack of workforce training. Educational opportunities in prison, said Pressley, include little other than needlepoint. She added that every female inmate was struggling with substance abuse, and that the facility offered little mental health services.

“We heard devastating reports from women there,” she said.

Incarcerated individuals face several more barriers when re-entering communities.

“If you’re a returning citizen, a formerly incarcerated individual, you’re not eligible for Pell grants in most states,” said Lee. “Or SNAP benefits, or Section 8 housing — anything that would provide you with a second chance.”

Pressley agreed:  “It’s disingenuous to talk of reentry when 30 percent of the people who are released here are being released to shelters because of policies that make it impossible to reunite with your family,” she said, “because of the dearth of housing that is affordable, because of housing and employment discrimination. There’s not the training. Educational programs have been divested.”

Children are unknowingly linked to the prison system as young as 5 or 6. Population projections for private prisons, said Lee, are based on the number of children enrolling in local kindergarten classes.

“They knew that these kids would land in prison,” said Lee. Unequal education, as well as unfair punishments and expulsions, contribute to this punitive cycle.

The Ending PUSHOUT Act is aimed at these very students who face continuous prejudice in school. PUSHOUT stands for punitive, unfair, school-based harm that is overt and unresponsive to trauma. The act recognizes that black girls are suspended from school at seven times the rate of white girls and are four times more likely to be arrested. Its goal is to obtain $2.5 billion in federal grants to limit discriminatory disciplinary procedures on children of color, especially young girls.

Lee has already co-sponsored the act, saying that Pressley has “hit the ground running” since accepting her position in Congress. Pressley values Lee’s support and calls her “big sister.”

The People’s Justice Guarantee, as well as the Ending PUSHOUT Act, is still in its beginning stages. Nevertheless, Pressley is heartened by its progress.

“We have been incredibly encouraged,” she said. “Just yesterday we had a number of [District Attorney] candidates and United States Senate candidates who endorsed our position.”

Lee commended Pressley’s strategic approach to the People’s Justice Guarantee resolution, which is not a legislative package, but rather a template for criminal justice reform meant to function in much the same way as the Green New Deal, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey.

Pressley said she has not yet sought sponsorship from legislators for the People’s Justice Guarantee, and is instead taking it to the people.

Lee called Pressley’s approach “strategic.”

“What I have learned is that members of Congress are not going to co-sponsor — or it’s going to be a heck of a lot less successful — unless you have people behind you saying this is something the people want,” Lee said. “That’s how democracy works. That way, you’re getting more successful bills passed.”   

Pressley said that the People’s Justice Guarantee is a “paradigm shift” — a visionary resolution backed by the people who need it the most.

“It was developed in partnership with those impacted — formerly and currently incarcerated men and women, families who have incarcerated loved ones,” said Pressley. She said that this partnership is the best part of the People’s Justice Guarantee.   

“We have the greatest co-sponsor on this,” she said. “The people.”