Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley has a bold vision for criminal justice reform, and it calls for decriminalizing poverty and homelessness
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 recalled. “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 that she said perpetuates homelessness.
Earlier this month, Pressley, a freshman representative from Massachusetts, 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 from 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.” The plan is based on five principles: shared power, freedom, equality, safety and dignity.
Pressley said that 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 per cent or more. In order 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 per cent 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.
“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 reincarceration for individuals who failed to secure housing.”
And many who are released from prison do fail to secure housing, Pressley said.
“In Massachusetts, I think at one point, 30 per cent 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’s 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, Pressley experienced firsthand the impact incarceration can have on families as her father battled substance abuse disorder and was in and out of the criminal justice system, the Boston Globe has reported.
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,” Pressley said. “I know intimately the destabilization, the stigma, the social shame and isolation of having a loved one who is incarcerated.”
Her father was later able to “do incredible things,” Pressley said, including obtaining two advanced degrees and 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 developing every legislation that we have offered, which is to create space and a seat at the table for those that 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.”
She said that when drafting her resolution, she and her staff worked directly with those who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated, children with incarcerated parents, those battling substance abuse disorder, and the transgender community.
“When I introduced The People’s Justice Guarantee, some people said to me, ‘Why would you do that without co-sponsors?’” Pressley said. “And I said, well, we have the most important co-sponsor, the people.
“This was not a resolution developed in an ivory tower. This is not top-down policymaking,” Pressley said. “This is community up.”
Now that she’s put in the work with those affected by the criminal legal system, Pressley said she can turn some of her attention toward colleagues in Congress. “Now we’ll work to educate and build consensus amongst my colleagues to be legislative co-sponsors,” Pressley said. “And we already have at least four pieces of legislation in the queue right now that we’ll be proposing that will begin to codify, legislatively, some of the tenets of The People’s Justice Guarantee.”
Tristia Bauman, senior attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, said she thought the resolution was “long overdue.” Bauman has also served as a public defender representing hundreds of people experiencing homelessness or at risk of being homeless.
“We do like her direct call for the end of criminalization of homelessness and criminalization of people who disproportionately experience homelessness, like people with mental health disabilities, (and) members of the LGBTQ community,” Bauman said.
If the initiatives called for in the resolution were enacted into law, she said, it could be “very impactful” for the homeless population.
“For example, there (are) provisions here on money bail,” Bauman said. “We know that the requirement to pay a bond in order to secure release after somebody has merely been accused of a crime keeps people who are homeless in custody, because they can’t give an address where they can receive notice.
“So even if they might otherwise be released on their own recognizance, that’s not an option often available as a practical matter to a person without housing,” Bauman said. “And because they are homeless as a result of their poverty, they also do not have money to be able to pay money bail, or the type of assets necessary to put up as collateral in order to secure a bond.”
Bauman said she also liked that the resolution called out the over-incarceration of black and brown people, and called for reforming sentencing laws, eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and ending private prisons.
“She covers a lot of ground,” Bauman said.
Pressley said that she hopes the resolution will change the conversation around criminal justice reform the same way The Green New Deal changed the conversation around climate justice and Medicare for All has had on the conversation about health care.
“It is our aim that The People’s Justice Guarantee becomes that new ceiling,” Pressley said, “that North Star, a new litmus test for those that are committed to actualizing, truly, justice for all.”
Article courtesy of Real Change / Street Roots / INSP.ngo