ST. LOUIS — Democrat Rep. Cori Bush on Monday introduced sweeping legislation to overhaul public safety by spending $10 billion to grow emergency response programs led by health officials, social workers and community groups, providing alternatives to police and prisons.
Bush’s “People’s Response Act” would establish a new federal agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services tasked with treating crimes such as gun violence and drug abuse as public health concerns. The goal, according to the bill, is to address “root causes of those issues rather than imposing criminal punishment.”
The legislation would carve out $2.5 billion in grants through 2026 to help governments and social service agencies hire and train social workers, behavioral and mental health counselors, and substance abuse counselors who would respond to public safety emergencies.
An additional $7.5 billion in grants would fund “crisis response” programs that aim to limit interactions with police and courts, including community-led conflict intervention and de-escalation, jail diversion and work training programs, housing assistance and educational programs.
The proposal has the support of 13 Democrats in the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives as well as dozens of advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Drug Policy Alliance and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Bush, a Ferguson activist who unseated Democratic incumbent William Lacy Clay last year to become the first Black woman representing Missouri in Congress, said the legislation would “save lives,” citing instances across the U.S. in which police responding to a 911 call killed or injured someone experiencing a mental health issue.
“For far too long, our current carceral, misguided approach has had devastating effects, particularly for young people and people living with disabilities and communities of color,” Bush said in an interview with the Post-Dispatch.
“Those lives could have been saved with a different policy decision, and different choices, different investments.”
A nurse and a pastor who once experienced homelessness, Bush said she often had worked with people with mental health issues. She said she was required to call police in cases of emergency, but that officers were not trained to work with someone experiencing a mental crisis.
“I don’t need you to look at it from the lens of ‘control and contain,’ I need help with de-escalation,” she said. “That’s the point. We need somebody with the training to do the work.
“Instead of law enforcement being dispatched to the community, there would be medical doctors and nurses and social workers. And those folks who are skilled and trained to be able to work in those areas.”
The funds would be administered by a new agency within HHS, the Division of Community Safety, which would support research into alternatives to incarceration and policing, as well as coordinate programs underway within HHS and other federal agencies.
The division would be overseen by a community advisory board made up of advocates for policing alternatives and people with experience in the criminal justice system, Bush said. Those include people who have been arrested or detained, people who have been “directly impacted by police violence” like police shootings, and people affected by other forms of violence, including gun crimes, domestic violence and sexual assault.
Bush, a firebrand on social media, has often come under fire from critics for her calls to reduce police budgets and redirect the money to social services. Asked about the criticism and the $10 billion in spending in her bill, Bush pointed to spending in past decades on policing and criminalization of drugs.
“We spent over $1 trillion on the war on drugs and almost $200 billion a year on policing, prisons and criminalization,” Bush said in an email. “What this bill is calling for is that we stop funding destruction and start funding life.”
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