Pressley goes ginormous on criminal justice reform

CONGRESSWOMAN AYANNA PRESSLEY released a plan to reform the criminal legal system that she’s calling “bold and progressive,” dubbing it the “People’s Justice Guarantee.” The wide-ranging resolution calls for reducing jail and prison populations, ending solitary confinement, a cap on prison sentences for all crimes, expanding mental and substance abuse treatment, improving reentry services, prohibiting company profits off of immigrant detention, and limiting firearm sales. The list of initiatives goes on and on.

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

Pressley’s sweeping resolution begins with 11 pages of statements describing the criminal justice system as she sees it. It says the United States has an “incarceration crisis” and describes “mass decarceration” as a “moral and societal imperative.” It also says the American legal system “duplicates and maintains systems of oppression that can be traced back to slavery, as and as a result disporportionately harms Black communities throughout the United States.”

Boston.com is calling Pressley’s resolution the Green New Deal for criminal justice reform. Money bail would be ended. Border crossings would be decriminalized. Reminiscent of Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins’s policy memo from last spring, Pressley would also direct law enforcement to decline to criminally prosecute some low-level offenses, such as loitering and theft of “necessary goods.” She also wants to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, backs the federal legalization of marijuana, and favors the decriminalization of consensual sex work, border crossings, and truancy.

Rollins’s recommendations faced significant blowback from police officials, who feared public safety would be compromised by letting offenders off the hook. Rollins is a supporter of the Pressley plan.

Pressley recommends focusing police resources on solving shootings, homicides, and sexual assaults, along with eliminating rape kit backlogs nationwide. The tough-on-crime protocols stemming from the enforcement crackdown of the 1980s, when elected officials were fearful of the drugs flooding their districts, would be significantly revised by her measures. The congresswoman backs the expungement of records of individuals convicted for drug-related offenses.

In addition to dramatically reducing the size of inmate populations, Pressley also wants to revamp prisons themselves. Her resolution calls for inmates to have free phone calls, video conferencing sessions, and frequent visitors. She wants inmates and visiting parents, partners, and children to have physical contact in a place with some privacy. She also wants prisons to have a space where children and parents can play together in facilities that are accessible for families with disabilities and staffed with American Sign Language interpreters.

Pressley also has ambitious plans for societal change, attacking barriers that exist to accessing healthcare, housing, and jobs. She weaves in gun control measures, including a limit on the production and sale of guns and a permanent ban on assault-style weapons, arguing that limiting access to firearms would reduce crime and recidivism. The price tags for her proposals are high — a $1 trillion investment in housing, for instance.

She calls for reparations to the descendants of slaves, including monetary compensation and large-scale social investments such as “debt-free college,” homeownership assistance, guaranteed health care, and business financing support,.

One thing known to reduce recidivism, civic engagement, is embodied in Pressley’s push to allow all incarcerated individuals the right to vote. Massachusetts currently bars anyone convicted of a felony from doing so.

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

On a state level, Massachusetts enacted a much-lauded criminal justice reform bill last year that eliminated several mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, allowed criminal records to be expunged for some offenses committed when an individual is younger than 21, and created diversion programs for low-level offenders. The Massachusetts reforms stack up as tiny baby steps when compared to Pressley’s resolution.

On the federal side, President Trump’s First Step Act has led to the release from prison of more than 3,000 inmates who were serving harsh sentences for low-level and nonviolent crimes.

Pressley was joined on her Wednesday press call by former prisoner Shujaa Graham, who spent three years on death row in California following a wrongful conviction for murder. During his trial, prosecutors worked to exclude all African-American jurors. “I’m not here because of the system; I’m here today in spite of the system,” Graham said, according to Boston.com.