Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley Unveils Plan to Overhaul ‘Fundamentally Flawed’ Criminal Legal System

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Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley recently unveiled a sweeping plan to overhaul the United States criminal justice system.

Named The People’s Justice Guarantee, a summary of the Massachusetts congresswoman’s plan described as “bold” on her official website states it “is a new progressive vision for decarceration and justice in America.”

“The criminal legal system is racist, xenophobic, rogue, and fundamentally flawed beyond reform,” Pressley told The Appeal during a phone call a day before the resolution was finalized on Nov. 14. “It must be dismantled and radically transformed through a large-scale decarceration effort.”

Pressley’s plan calls for reducing the number of people imprisoned and “dramatically” lowering jail and prison populations, wiping out wealth-based discrimination and corporate profiteering, changing the experience of jail and prison time and investing in communities typically impacted by incarceration. The latter includes Black people who have been affected by ‘‘broken windows’’ policing.

The congresswoman says she’ll reduce prison numbers by eliminating the death penalty and life sentences as well as decriminalizing consensual sex work and low-level offenses. Wealth-based discrimination would be tackled in part by preventing private companies from benefiting from incarceration and immigrant detention centers. Solitary confinement will come to an end while visitation will be increased to transform the imprisonment experience. Additionally, communities historically impacted by incarceration will see change through the halting of the transfer of military equipment to local police as well as restricting the production and sales of firearms.

Ayanna Pressley
U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) speaks at a rally hosted by Progressive Democrats of America on Capitol Hill on Sept. 26, 2019, in Washington. (Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

There are five guiding principles the congresswoman is outlining in her reform resolution. They are (1) shared power, which encourages town halls and assemblies, (2) freedom, which “calls for a significant reduction of the U.S. prison population” through policies at the federal, state and local levels, (3) equality, which would be achieved in part by “abolishing private prison, jail, and immigrant detention contracts,” (4) safety, an effort “to disrupt the over-policing, criminalization and presumption of guilt among vulnerable groups,” which include Black people and people with disabilities among them. Finally, (5) human dignity by “challenging the underlying racism, criminalization, dehumanization and oppression that define the U.S. criminal legal system.”

Although Pressley’s proposal has been bashed by conservative lawmakers — Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Texas) told Fox News it’s “hollow” — it has received backing from many organizations and activists including Color Of Change and the American Civil Liberties Union.

“The ACLU is pleased to support the People’s Justice Guarantee, the first resolution of its kind to boldly reimagine the American legal system,” said Kanya Bennett, senior legislative counsel of the ACLU. “The bill [sic; measure is a resolution] confronts the racism, classism, and other supremacy rooted in every aspect of the system, from policing to sentencing. It is with this framework that the Congress must now work to eradicate mass incarceration.”

Scott Roberts, Color of Change’s Senior Director of Criminal Justice Campaigns said in part, “Representative Pressley’s resolution is an important step in the right direction. It lays out a promising blueprint for federal leadership on decarceration and creates an opening for our communities to be heard. We look forward to working with her and other members of Congress to achieve real policy change.”

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