'Squad' Backs Bill to Gut Police, End Prisons

Police reform bill would disband DEA and ICE, close federal prisons, legalize border crossings

Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Rep. Rashida Tlaib
Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Rep. Rashida Tlaib / Getty Images
July 8, 2020

Two leading progressive House Democrats on Tuesday endorsed a proposal to radically overhaul the criminal justice system by dismantling policing and incarceration in the United States.

Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D., Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.), both known as members of the House's uber-progressive "squad," backed the BREATHE Act, legislation that would strip federal law enforcement to the bone, disband the DEA and ICE, end federal funding for police, and "develop a time-bound plan to close all federal prisons."

The bill would also, an official summary states, funnel unspecified amounts of federal money into massive new grant programs, which would be spent on priorities like school curricula on "colonialism," pilot programs for a universal basic income, and reparations for prostitutes.

No official language for the BREATHE Act yet exists, and the proposal is unlikely to be passed wholesale into law. Pressley and Tlaib's support, however, signals that the Democrats' progressive wing is unsatisfied with the police reforms being pushed by their more moderate colleagues and would prefer a more radical overhaul. That vision in turn has a good chance at influencing 2020 contender Joe Biden and the Democratic Party's platform, due to be set next month.

The summary, released by the social justice umbrella organization Movement for Black Lives, outlines a comprehensive vision for overhauling the criminal justice system. The first calls for comprehensive divestment of federal resources from policing, including an end to federal funding for police hiring, the abolition of ICE and the DEA, the defunding of school security officers, and major cuts to the Department of Defense's budget.

The envisioned overhaul would also entail a number of legal changes. Those include banning facial recognition and predictive policing tools; ending mandatory minimums, life sentences, and "three strikes" laws; and repealing "federal laws that criminalize human movement and border entry"—effectively legalizing crossing the border. Some of the plans involve federal regulation of state law, like "repealing all existing State juvenile offenses"—a move that would likely face a substantial constitutional challenge.

Instead of funding police and incarceration, the BREATHE Act would redirect resources to "alternatives" like violence interruption and mediation programs—approaches either with little evidentiary support or which studies say do not work. These would be supplemented by major transfer programs, supporting everything from "food cooperatives and urban gardens" to a universal basic income. Also on the agenda are "reparations for mass criminalization," including "the criminalization of prostitution" and "border violence."

The BREATHE Act is just the latest offering from House progressives hoping to dismantle the criminal justice system. Pressley previously authored a resolution calling for a "smaller, safer, less punitive, and more humane" criminal justice system through a series of changes that would have limited impact on incarceration, but a substantial impact on policing and city quality of life.

Those proposals go much further than the House Democrats' consensus response to recent calls for police reform, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020. That bill—which bans chokeholds, creates a national database for tracking police misconduct, and otherwise cracks down on police violence—passed the House with every Democrat's support. Efforts at police reform have stalled out in the Senate amid contending bills by Democrats and Republicans—Tlaib and Pressley's proposal may represent another volley into this melee.

While the BREATHE Act is unlikely to gain traction in the House, it does signal the direction that the Democrats' progressive wing would like to take the party on criminal justice. That may matter for the shaping of the party's platform, which Biden has granted key allies of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) significant sway over. The result may parallel the Green New Deal, which failed to pass in resolution form last March, but a variation of which appeared in many 2020 Democrats' platforms, and which will likely influence the party's vision come August.