Organization Trends

ACLU and Prison Abolition Group Support Rep. Pressley’s Criminal Justice Bill

In November, U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) introduced the People’s Justice Guarantee, her radical criminal justice bill that would abolish life sentences and place maximum caps on all prison sentences, among other reforms. The ACLU and the Boston chapter of Black and Pink have already endorsed the bill.

When releasing the People’s Justice Guarantee, Pressley wrote on Twitter, “This country’s criminal INjustice system is racist, xenophobic, rogue & fundamentally flawed beyond reform.” In detailing the bill on her House website, Pressley again stressed her belief that the criminal justice system is “racist”: “For far too long, those closest to the pain have not been closest to the power, resulting in a racist, xenophobic, rogue, and fundamentally flawed criminal legal system.” She also claims the bill is the result of a “symbiotic partnership with over 20 grassroots organizations and people impacted by the discriminatory policies of our legal system.”

Pressley’s Criminal Justice Reform Plan

Pressley’s website explains the bill’s focus on decriminalizing sex work, decriminalizing low-level offenses, ending the death penalty, ending life sentences (which are described as “death by incarceration”), and “capping sentences, for all crimes, particularly those that do no[t] cause serious harm.”

A deeper dive into H.Res. 702 reveals a section dedicated to “mak[ing] confinement last only as long as necessary.” Indeed, the bill calls for ending the death penalty, ending life sentences without parole, and “capping prison sentences for all crimes.” It also calls for reinstating federal parole and creating a review board that would determine whether “incarcerated individuals” should be released after 10 years “for any crime,” with the board including at least one former prisoner. Specifically, the bill calls for:

ending mandatory minimum sentencing and providing incarcerated individuals an opportunity to petition for release after serving 10 years for any crime by a review board that includes at least one individual who has previously served time, to both encourage and reward people who reform themselves and pose no threat to public safety no matter the offense;

Similarly, the bill calls for creating a “national compassionate release standard” with the “presumption of release” for “any person with a disability who has spent at least 15 years in prison, as well as any person over the age of 50 who has spent at least 10 years in prison, over the age of 55 who has spent 5 years in prison, or over the age of 60.”

The bill also calls for abolishing all youth jails, “making the detention of children in any form the absolute last resort.”

Collaborators and Supporters

Pressley lists the names of organizations and individuals who helped her come up with the People’s Justice Guarantee. Many of the collaborators are explicitly immigration related: National Immigration Law Center, Immigrant Legal Resource Center, United We Dream, the Immigrant Defense Project, and the UndocuBlack Network, a “multigenerational network of currently and formerly undocumented Black people.” This is no coincidence; the bill also calls for “decriminalizing the act of migration by repealing provisions in Federal law that criminalize migrants for irregular border crossings” and “ending draconian systems of mandatory detention and automatic deportation.”

Despite the radical measures in the bill, Pressley’s website lists approximately 20 organizations that endorse her bill. Most notably, the first group listed on the website is the ACLU. The next organization listed is Color of Change, known for its petition campaigns and its Blood Money effort to cut off access to payment processors by groups it considers hate groups. Next on the list is UndocuBlack Network.

The fourth group listed is the Boston chapter of Black and Pink.

According to Black and Pink’s national website, the group’s mission states, “We fight to abolish prisons. We fight for basic human rights.” The site continues, “Black and Pink’s mission is to abolish the criminal punishment system and to liberate LGBTQIA2S+ people/people living with HIV who are affected by that system, through advocacy, support, and organizing.”

Pressley’s website features a statement by Michael Cox, the director of policy for Black and Pink Boston, saying the organization is “proud” to support Pressley’s bill. The statement appears right before a statement of support from the ACLU’s senior legislative counsel Kanya Bennett. In Cox’s statement, he writes, “We look forward to Congresswoman Pressley partnering with us to bring these mutual goals to fruition.”

In addition to the endorsements from the ACLU and the Black and Pink chapter, Pressley’s website also highlights a statement by the National Black Police Association, linking to the full statement.

The National Black Police Association calls the bill a “brilliant starting point for conversation and then action surrounding criminal justice reform.” The group, “the oldest black law enforcement association in the United States,” claims the principles in the People’s Justice Guarantee “are in direct alignment with our mission to increase the awareness of the community, to the be conscience of the criminal justice system, and to enhance the quality of life in the African American community.”

Perhaps the most powerful endorsement is from Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins. Coincidentally, Pressley endorsed Rollins in her race for district attorney. Rollins recently dropped charges against the Antifa protesters who were arrested for disorderly conduct while attacking police during the Straight Pride Parade, after Pressley raised money for their bail fund.

Mainstream Support for Extreme Measures

Even though Pressley’s criminal justice reform plan is unlikely to go anywhere right now, the fact that it’s receiving support from mainstream groups while calling for extreme measures is notable.