U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s sweeping plan to significantly cut jail and prison populations, in part by declining to prosecute numerous offenses, is drawing heat from law enforcement officials who say it would trigger more crime and is “only exacerbating problems.”
Pressley’s resolution — called “The People’s Justice Guarantee” — includes proposals that would dramatically reduce the number of people incarcerated across the country, and would encourage diversion programs. The plan also calls for declining to criminally prosecute low-level offenses associated with poverty and addiction, and ending mandatory minimum sentencing.
District Attorney Michael O’Keefe on Sunday warned that such policies can negatively impact communities.
“The idea of calling certain offenses no longer criminal is not the right way to go about this,” said O’Keefe, of the Cape & Islands District. “It will lead to more crime.”
Incarceration is a deterrent to crime, said Marshfield Police Chief Phil Tavares.
“If you’re not incarcerating and not fining, then it continues to enable bad behavior and won’t deter law-breaking behavior,” he added.
But Pressley at an “Equity Agenda workshop” in Dorchester Sunday defended her resolution, saying, “I do not believe that mass incarceration has made any of us safer.”
“It’s not about not supporting or promoting more peaceable and safe communities. We all want, and we all deserve that,” Pressley said.
She talked about her father, who cycled in and out of prison for 14 years because he was battling an opioid addiction.
“Prison should have been a last resort for my father,” she said. “What he needed was access to on-demand treatment.”
Pressley added that the criminal justice system must invest in “preventative measures and alternatives that I think do get us on a pathway to a safer, more equitable and just world.”
She said that 80% of incarcerated women are mothers.
“Now you might say, ‘Well, they did a crime, and so they should have thought about that,’ but most of them are there because of poverty crimes, because of crimes connected to substance abuse disorder, because of domestic violence,” Pressley said.
But Bristol County Sheriff Tom Hodgson said Pressley’s plan was another example of politicians looking for “easy solutions.” Hodgson said striking down prison sentences “lessens accountability.”
“This is not helping anybody, it’s only exacerbating problems,” Hodgson said.
“It may cost the life of an innocent person because, based on a formula, you let them out and that’s not the answer,” he added.
Pressley’s resolution would also end the death penalty, and also calls for eliminating life sentences without the possibility of parole. In July, in response to the U.S. Department of Justice’s announcement that they will resume the use of the death penalty, Pressley introduced legislation to prohibit the use of the death penalty at the federal level.
Tavares argues, however, that the death penalty should remain.
“Unfortunately there are some people who have committed such heinous crimes who do deserve the death penalty or life without parole,” he said. “These sentences are a deterrent and keep the rest of the community safe because of the heinous acts they committed.”
Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s criminal justice resolution, “The People’s Justice Guarantee,” calls for dramatically reducing the number of people behind bars. Here’s how:
— Decriminalizing addiction, homelessness and poverty by legalizing marijuana and overdose prevention sites, declining to criminally prosecute low-level offenses such as loitering and theft of necessity goods, and expunging the records of individuals for all drug-related offenses.
— Decriminalizing consensual sex work and low-level offenses.
— 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 person who has served time.
— Expanding access to diversion programs, community service, restorative justice programming and treatment options that minimize court involvement and result in no prison time for most offenses when the person does not cause harm.
— Ending the death penalty and life sentences without the possibility of parole.
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