Drug addiction once held Martin Pressley like a vise, and he found himself in and out of the criminal justice system for more than a decade. That meant that he was also in and out of the life of his daughter, Ayanna.
“As [Equal Justice Initiative founder] Bryan Stevenson says, crimes don’t go to jail; people do,” Ayanna, now one of the most influential new voices in Congress, told me by phone on Thursday. “And so, my mother and I we did that time along with my father.”
It has been a year since Pressley became the first black woman that Massachusetts voters have ever elected to the House of Representatives. On Thursday, Rep. Pressley, a Democrat, put forth a new House resolution that uses five principles — shared power, freedom, equality, safety, and dignity — as guides to launch expansive reforms of, as she put in a statement, “a racist, xenophobic, rogue, and fundamentally flawed criminal legal system.” Included among those are lowering the prison population, abolishing the death penalty nationwide, shoring up the American social safety net, and helping those who are confined by improving health care and ensuring their civil rights.
When she spoke to Rolling Stone about the genesis for the idea, she spoke first about her father.
“I know intimately the destabilization of mass incarceration,” Pressley said, “but also the intersection of substance abuse disorder and addiction is what ultimately led my father to commit crimes that supported his addiction. He’s a perfect example of why I believe we need to prioritize de-carceration.”
Pressley dubbed her resolution the People’s Justice Guarantee, and that last word carries a lot of weight. I spoke with her at length about what she wants to assure to the American people, and why she is staking out this ground now.
Along with your father, what else spurred you to put forth this House resolution?
These things are not developed top down. They’re informed by the people most directly impacted. And so, it’s based on those conversations that I continue to have in communities with the wrongfully convicted, with the children and with incarcerated caregivers, with people currently incarcerated. We also were spending time behind the wall with men and women to better understand you know how they arrive there and how they were being treated there.
The priority is mass incarceration. But we also know that we have to make sure that while people are incarcerated, we are prioritizing their humanity and their dignity and then best supporting them as they re-enter.
What will the resolution accomplish?
What I anticipate will happen is that there will be a lot of legislation that will come out of this resolution. We need a reset. We need to reach a reset, a reframe, a paradigm shift. We want to create a new framework and vision for what [criminal justice reform] needs to look like. We already have four pieces of legislation that begin to codify some of these broader goals.
It’s going to require partnership at all levels of government to make this real.
What are some of those bills, and those goals?
The resolution calls for dramatically reducing jail and prison populations by ending the death penalty, by decriminalizing sex work poverty and addiction, and by transforming the experience of confinement. That includes ending solitary confinement and allowing trans individuals to be housed in accordance with their chosen gender identity.
It also prohibits private companies from profiting off incarceration and immigrant detention, including the forced labor of incarcerated people — which we believe is a modern form of slavery. That includes removing the profit motive from the incarceration industry, everything from phone calls to food services to medical care and commissary accounts.
It also aims to stop the transfer of military equipment to local police and refocusing resources to dramatically increase clearance rates for the most serious crimes: shootings, homicides, domestic and sexual violence.
The scope of this goes well beyond incarceration and even criminal justice, though.
This is focused on prevention and intervention re-entry. We have to think about a complete expansion of the social safety net and all in that ecosystem, which is so critical to prevention and to supporting folks coming out. So, guaranteed health care, housing, jobs, transit, education, safety, and justice.
I know that this all sounds like a lot, but that’s because we need to accomplish a lot.
You’ve said that we need a “reset” on this issue. Why, then, put forth a resolution, and not a series of new bills by themselves?
I think it’s important because it offers a visionary blueprint for what is a just society: one that centers equality and is more humane.
So we didn’t want to just be proposing legislation in piecemeal that isn’t working towards a broader goal or it. And so by putting this broader vision out now, it also helps us to enlist accomplices in the People’s Justice Guarantee. It’s not amorphous. It’s not abstract. We’re not tinkering at the edges. This is a complete paradigm shift.
In addition to your continuing fight to abolish the death penalty nationwide, what bills will you be putting forth to further this agenda?
I will be introducing federal legislation, that I’ve been working on for quite a while, to address the growing school-to-confinement pipeline for black girls. This is an issue that I’ve been working on for about three years (since she was a member of Boston’s City Council). These school policies, on their face, appear to be neutral but have a disparate impact on black and brown youth and increasingly black girls. Working hand in glove with that, I’m the lead sponsor on the Crown Act, prohibiting hair discrimination in all public accommodations.
Too often, the ways in which the criminal justice system affects women are sidelined. Is there an audience that you’re trying to reach with this “reset”?
When you think about things like the cash bail system which we also in our legislation called to eliminate you know who is disproportionately impacted by that. You know Sandra Bland as being a young black woman who was at the mercy of a cash bail system. She’s no anomaly. It’s because of black trans women like [HIPS policy and advocacy associate] Tamika Spellman and the stories they’ve shared about police brutality and predatory behavior. It’s people like [formerly incarcerated activist] Andrea James in my district. I have to give credit where credit is due: to those who will be closer to the pain the most impacted who will be on the frontlines of this advocacy work for a very long time.
I’m for legislation that already exists, like the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act. And so I see this as building on that. I was working on some of these issues on a municipal level, but now I get to address them at scale. And that is so necessary.
You endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren for president a week ago. Will she be adopting this resolution as part of her platform?
I look forward to having those conversations with her. And I look forward to our next Democratic president making the People’s Justice Guarantee a reality.
I would not have endorsed her if I did not believe that there were many tenets within this that she is not I’ve already supported or will. So just stay tuned on that, because again there will be more that we’re doing in partnership, in this space and others.