WASHINGTON — Representative Ayanna Pressley on Thursday proposed legislation to end the death penalty and ban assault weapons as part of a sweeping plan to make the criminal justice system smaller, less discriminatory, and “more humane.”
Her bill centers around five tenets — shared power, freedom, equality, safety, and dignity — and aims to combat what the Boston Democrat said was the disproportionate effect of the criminal justice system on women, people of color, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized groups.
“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,” Pressley said in announcing the “People’s Justice Guarantee” legislation. “Our resolution calls for a bold transformation of the status quo — devoted to dismantling injustices so that the system is smaller, safer, less punitive, and more humane.”
Pressley said the plan would “substantially reduce the number of people incarcerated” by decriminalizing low-level offenses and consensual sex work, as well as capping prison sentences for all crimes. She also would end the use of money-based bail and private prisons.
Pressley cited multiple instances of what she said was injustice in the American prison system, including that the United States is home to 21 percent of the world’s prisoners despite making up just 4 percent of the world’s population. The black community unevenly bears the burden of this high rate of incarceration, with black people making up 33 percent of the prison population despite being just 13 percent of the country’s population, she said.
The bill incorporates legislation Pressley has already introduced to abolish the death penalty. Controversial proposals such as that one make it unlikely her broader bill would get enacted, with Republicans controlling the Senate and President Trump in the White House.
Pressley introduced her death penalty bill in July after Attorney General William Barr announced that the federal government would resume capital punishment for the first time in nearly two decades and ordered officials to schedule executions for five inmates. Pressley would prohibit the death penalty on the federal level and require resentencing for anyone currently on death row.
The death penalty is legal in 29 states, although four of those states have a governor-imposed moratorium on capital punishment. Massachusetts abolished the death penalty in 1984.
Pressley also called for a mass gun buyback program, a permanent ban on assault weapons, and a stop to the transfer of military equipment to local police departments. The Ferguson, Mo., police department used former military equipment in 2014 in response to protests about the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown.
Pressley hopes to improve prisoners’ experiences in jail by expanding visitation, ending solitary confinement, and increasing educational access. Her expanded visitation proposal would give incarcerated parents and their family access to free phone calls and video conferencing sessions, while ending solitary confinement to prevent what she said is its disproportionate use against LGBTQ people as well as people with cognitive and physical disabilities.
The legislation has received support from many activist groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Immigrant Justice Center. Rachael Rollins, the Suffolk district attorney, said she welcomed Pressley’s proposal and looked forward to working with her on criminal justice issues.
“For too many people, our criminal legal system is broken,” Rollins said. “Wealth and privilege should never dictate outcome, and unfortunately, too often they do.”
Ryan Wangman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.