‘Squad’ Member Pressley Offers Plan to Dismantle Criminal Justice System

Resolution would decriminalize quality of life offenses, crack down on cops

Ayanna Pressley
Ayanna Pressley / Getty Images

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D., Mass.), democratic socialist and member of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's (D., N.Y.) "squad," on Thursday released a comprehensive proposal to overhaul America's criminal justice system.

The plan, according to Pressley's office, is designed to fix a "racist, xenophobic, rogue, and fundamentally flawed criminal legal system," replacing it with a system that is "smaller, safer, less punitive, and more humane." The result is not a legislative proposal, but a resolution that outlines broad goals and lacks concrete details for implementation.

Pressley's proposal goes beyond the criminal justice reform platforms floated by 2020 Democrats—including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), whom Pressley has endorsed and campaigned with. The Pressley plan is perhaps best read as a laundry list of what the left wing of the Democratic Party would implement at the national level, and what local and state-level progressives are already implementing.

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Pressley's plan lays out a broad framework—"a community-led platform of justice, freedom, and safety"—followed by a wish list of policies that the freshman congresswoman would like to see implemented throughout the nation. Front and center is the decriminalization or legalization of so-called victimless crimes, primarily in the name of reducing mass incarceration. Pressley's plan would decriminalize prostitution—a crime that accounted for just 0.3 percent of arrests in 2018. In order to "decriminaliz[e] addiction," it would also legalize marijuana, a drug responsible for less than 1 percent of current incarceration.

The legalization of drug use and prostitution extends to Pressley's more general plan to decriminalize "low-level offenses such as loitering and theft of necessity goods." Her bill follows the playbook of progressive prosecutors such as newly elected San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin. Boudin has promised to decline to prosecute quality of life crimes such as "public camping, offering or soliciting sex, public urination, and blocking a sidewalk," instead using city resources to target police misconduct and corporate crime.

The plan extends a similar logic to individuals apprehended illegally crossing the border. Pressley follows the lead of several 2020 Democrats who have called for making illegal entrance a civil rather than criminal offense, even while research shows that prosecution reduces subsequent illegal reentry. Pressley would also end cooperation between local and federal law enforcement on immigration, effectively kneecapping immigration enforcement in the United States.

It is questionable how large of an impact reforms like these would have on mass incarceration. The majority of those incarcerated at the state-level are held for serious, violent offenses; the plurality of federal offenders are drug traffickers, with another large share facing weapons charges. (Pressley's bill includes an assault weapons ban and gun buyback, an indicator that she is unlikely to be soft on weapons offenders.) In other words, Pressley's proposal would do little to shrink prison population, but a great deal to make quality-of-life enforcement harder for police officers.

At the same time, Pressley's plan would substantially increase pressure on those same cops, as well as criminal prosecutors. Specifically, it would reimplement Department of Justice oversight over local police departments, end prosecutorial immunity, and ban the use of algorithmic policing tools for fear that they may be racially biased. These changes would add pressure to already struggling American police forces, which are facing a hiring crisis and, simultaneously, surging rates of suicide among officers.

Following a trend among young, far-left members of the House, Pressley's proposal does one other thing: claim that a whole host of other progressive policy goals are necessary for accomplishing criminal justice reform. In order to "rebuild the communities most harmed by the failed policies of mass incarceration," Pressley calls for a federal housing guarantee and jobs guarantee, taxpayer funding for abortion, a Green New Deal, and reparations for slavery.

Increasingly progressive moves on criminal justice reform have become a hallmark of the Democratic Party going in to the 2020 elections. Progressive prosecutors such as San Francisco's Boudin and Philadelphia's Larry Krasner, backed by millions in funds from George Soros, have pushed for liberalizing changes at the local level. Not to be outdone, Democrats seeking their party's nomination for president have pushed out similar plans for mass decriminalization of petty crime, while turning up the heat on America's police forces through increasingly intrusive federal oversight.

All of these proposed changes exist in the context of violent crime rates which, after decades of decline, appear to be plateauing or rising slightly. What effect the changing criminal justice landscape—and, in particular, Democratic policymakers' intentions for it—will have remains to be seen.