Gun violence is a public health crisis and it’s time to start treating public health problems with public health solutions. We have to invest in public education, housing, transportation, job training and mental health care. We have to invest in our communities, not cages.
Our approach must be centered around community care and healing. If we take care of our people instead of breaking them down, our neighborhoods will thrive. We will end the era of mass incarceration and the war on drugs as we transition to a public health approach that heals the wounds of the past, shifts first responder responsibilities to public health workers, rehabilitates those who’ve committed violence, and interrupts the cycle of violence before it begins.
Transform Our Justice System to Protect Public Health
If we take care of our people instead of breaking them down, our neighborhoods will thrive. We must:
- Shift funding and resources from police departments, jails, and prisons to new agencies designed to protect public health.
- Provide federal matching grants for states and municipalities that create Crisis Care units of violence interrupters, social workers, and mental health intervention.
- End military equipment transfer programs to local and state law enforcement.
- Provide federal grants for school districts, universities, and other educational entities that break enforcement contracts with police to receive funding for restorative justice programs, violence interrupters and other mental health workers.
- End qualified immunity and ban officers with use of force violations from future employment in other departments.
- Use federal funds and standards to incentivize states and municipalities that shift funding from police departments to healthcare, wellness, trauma centers, drug and alcohol treatment programming, peer support networks, and training for healthcare professionals.
Delivering For The District: Anti-Violence Investments
Jamaal has worked in Congress to fund new, innovative anti-violence programs in our communities that center care, not incarceration, to improve public safety:
- $400,000 invested in NYC Health+Hospitals-Jacobi’s “Stand Up to Violence” mental health program
- $800,000 invested in The HOPE Program and Sustainable South Bronx’s “Intervine” anti-violence workforce training program
Stop Mass Shootings
The United States is the only industrialized country in the world where mass shootings occur on a daily basis. America’s gun violence epidemic disproportionately impacts communities of color and inflicts deeper trauma in the lives of people who are already struggling. Common sense gun laws will save lives, but the inability to break the NRA’s stranglehold on our corrupt government has protected the billion-dollar gun industry over the mental and physical well-being of our communities.
We must do everything we can to keep guns out of the hands of those at the highest risk of harming themselves or others. We must save lives by:
- Holding both gun dealers and manufacturers accountable by prosecuting gun traffickers, revoking licenses for gun dealers who break the rules, empowering gun violence survivors to hold manufacturers responsible for compensatory damages, and raising taxes on gun manufacturers.
- Requiring universal background checks for private sales including at gun shows and online. These mandates should be permanent and should close the “Charleston loophole” that allows a sale to proceed after three days even if the background check is not complete.
- Raising the minimum age to buy a firearm to at least 18 years old, keeping guns out of the hands of more teenagers.
- Passing an assault weapons ban prohibiting the future production, sale, and importation of military-style assault weapons and requiring individuals already in possession of assault weapons to register them under the National Firearms Act.
- Establishing a national assault weapons buyback program to allow owners of assault weapons to return their weapon for safe disposal if they wish to do so, and individuals who fail to register or return their assault weapon should face penalties.
- Closing the “boyfriend loophole” to protect survivors of domestic abuse by defining “intimate partner” to include anyone with a domestic violence conviction involving any form of romantic partner, and expanding the law to include individuals with restraining orders or who have been convicted of stalking.
- Creating a federal licensing system for the purchase of any type of firearm or ammunition.
- Prohibiting anyone convicted of a hate crime from owning a gun, full stop. There is no excuse for guns used in acts of violence intended to stoke fear in minority communities.
- Establishing a one-week waiting period for all firearms purchases to prevent impulsive gun violence and reduce gun suicides.
- Improving the Gun-Free School Zones Act to include college and university campuses, and individuals licensed by a state or locality to carry a firearm.
Why Justice Reform is Personal to Me
In 2004, I was driving home from my teaching job at an elementary school in the South Bronx, on my way to pick up my 3-year-old son and wind down for the evening. I saw sirens flashing in my rearview mirror. This was not the first time I’d been pulled over by the cops, nor would it be my last. It is something you never get used to, and every time it happens your heart skips a beat. You feel guilty even though you didn’t do anything wrong.
I remember the officers approaching the vehicle and telling me I hadn’t properly used a turn signal, and I remember them taking my license and insurance. I waited for what seemed like forever, anxiety increasing every moment. When the cops returned, they asked me to step out of the car, turn around and put my hands behind my back. I don’t remember asking why or if they just told me that my insurance was suspended. I knew this wasn’t true, but I didn’t dare open my mouth. I was well aware of what might happen if you talk back to the cops from Rodney King’s beating by the L.A. police. So I kept my mouth shut.
I was taken to the local police precinct and put in a cage not much bigger than a bathroom, with two other people, one bench and one toilet. While one person gets to occupy the bench, the other two are forced onto the filthy floor. When you are locked in a cage, you are suddenly no longer human. They make you an animal. Your spirit shifts into survival mode.
I spent what must have been a few hours in one cell before being transferred via paddy wagon to another cell. I was handcuffed and placed in the back of a dark van behind a cage. It is a terrifying experience. You lose your bearing because you don’t quite know where you are or where you’re going.
After spending another few hours in the second cell, I was released without seeing a judge. No explanation. No apology. No car either, as it was impounded. I had to borrow money just to get it back the next day. I was grateful to be free and get home to my son and my mother, who was watching him. We didn’t speak much about the incident because I was just happy to be home.
The year before, I was arrested and accused of stealing my own car because I parked somewhere illegally. That time my son was with me, as was my friend. My son got to see his daddy arrested by the police. Once again, I recall being detained for hours before being released without charge.
Of course, my experiences are nothing compared to what Kalief Browder went through before taking his own life. Or what the families of the 42nd precinct in the Bronx had to deal with. Or those of Eric Garner, or of Sean Bell.
The corrupt system of mass incarceration has terrorized poor, working-class, black, Latino, and indigenous families for decades while failing to offer paths toward redemption and rehabilitation. It’s a larger symptom of a rigged political and economic system that disinvests from the social safety net and then criminalizes the poor.
Our justice system is designed to harm communities of color and working families. It is cruel and racist, and it does not make our communities safer.
Mass incarceration, the prison-industrial complex and the racist war on drugs have impacted me directly. These policy choices have hurt so many of us in The Bronx and Westchester. If New York State were a country, we would have the sixth highest incarceration rate in the world — ahead of Rwanda and Russia. This is an outrage.
I’m proud of all the work that’s already been done by organizers and communities on the ground. We must continue to organize at the state, local and federal level, and we must increase the urgency of our fight in Washington so that we can help our communities at home.
End the Era of Mass Incarceration
The so-called “correctional” system is designed to oppress and break people down, cage poor people and then ensure they are indebted to their cagers even after release. That must end.
End The School-To-Prison
Jamaal has worked directly with the families most impacted by mass incarceration, leading him to ask: How can you concentrate in school when your father, sister, aunt, or brother is locked up because they can’t afford bail? How can you focus on learning when you have to walk through metal detectors – and when there are more police officers in your school than counselors? Can a child truly thrive when her school resembles a police state?
If we want to cure our addiction to neglect and torture, we have to start at the top. The kids and families Jamaal worked with every day in our public schools need resources and opportunities to thrive, that means healthcare, housing, good paying jobs, and places to play and develop.
Legalize and Regulate Marijuana, End the War on Drugs
We must legalize and regulate marijuana – and ensure that it’s not just wealthy white men benefitting from this new industry. Legalization should also include expunging the records of those with non-violent related offenses. Communities most impacted by the racist war on drugs should receive the most benefits from legalizing marijuana.The prohibition of marijuana has caused a range of problems. We can remedy this by doing the following: automatic clearing of prior marijuana convictions; reinvestment of marijuana tax revenue in communities most harmed by mass criminalization; eliminating barriers to market access for small businesses in impacted communities; and comprehensive regulatory restrictions and education to maximize the public health benefits of legal regulation.
End Excessive Sentencing and Mandatory Minimums
Fairness in our justice system entails eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing, the prosecution of low-level drug possession, civil asset forfeiture and deportations for drug possession. We should provide incarcerated people with a meaningful opportunity for release after a decade, and no one should be forced to die in jail, especially elderly people.
Eliminate Cash Bail
Eliminating cash bail does not increase crime, while keeping in place a cash bail system perpetuates racial and economic inequities in our criminal justice system. Thousands of people shouldn’t languish in jail simply because they are too poor or too black, while millionaires and billionaires can simply purchase freedom. That’s not justice, that’s corruption. We must end cash bail and replace it with a pretrial framework of holistic services.
No New Jails or Prisons
We should be building more schools, hospitals, and child care facilities – not more jails and prisons. The United States puts more people in cages than any other nation on earth. Let’s get our values and priorities straight.
End Solitary Confinement
Solitary confinement is an internationally recognized human rights violation. It creates enduring trauma, it is applied in discriminatory ways, and it is torture. We must abolish it.
Improve Services for People who are Formerly Incarcerated
Our nation lacks services to fully restore and rehabilitate people who have had contact with the prison industrial complex. Every victim of our criminal justice system should come out to a job and housing with opportunity for advancement. That means investing in community organizations and creating good-paying jobs with pensions in social service fields.
Restore Voting Rights for Incarcerated People
Guaranteeing the right to vote for every citizen – incarcerated or not – and creating true universal suffrage is both the right thing to do and, research shows, reduces likelihood of future offenses.
End Profiting Off Private Prisons and Detention Centers
We must end the practice of federal, state, and local governments contracting private corporations to manage prisons and detention facilities by passing the Justice Is Not For Sale Act spearheaded by Raul Grijalva and Bernie Sanders. We must also stop the private profitization of incarceration, including public jails and prisons. Too many corporations make too much money off the backs of people who are incarcerated.
Stop Criminalizing Poverty to Line the Pockets of Executives.
Telephone call charges and doctor co-pays all cost money that incarcerated people do not have. Incarcerated people are paid a fraction of minimum wage for labor because the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery does not cover them. People who have paid their debts to society should not owe additional financial debts.
Police Accountability and Enforcing Equal Treatment
For many decades, many communities have felt like law enforcement is an occupying force. I personally have had many encounters with the police that were humiliating and wrong. We must create federal policies that hold police departments accountable to a basic standard of combating racial bias, inequity and discrimination. We must also work to create policies that hold police departments and individual officers accountable for misconduct. This means reducing the very high burden of proof required to prosecute police officers for any wrongdoing under section 1983 for law enforcement officers. We must end stop-and-frisk practices that still hurt our communities. We must demilitarize police departments and strengthen police accountability and civilian review boards. I also support policies that would reduce the use of deadly force and promote the use of de-escalation tactics within our law enforcement departments.
Support Rep. Pressley’s People’s Justice Guarantee
I support Representative Ayanna Pressley’s pending legislation, called The People’s Justice Guarantee, which is a comprehensive bill that would put justice back in the hands of people directly impacted by generations of oppression and mass incarceration. Those closest to the pain should be closest to the power. It is time to build schools and homes instead of more and more cages.
Mass incarceration is the product of a war on communities of color that has resulted in more arrests but less security for us all. We need fewer people in prison in the first place, and we need to change our correctional facilities’ focus to preparing people to rejoin society upon release. To improve our neighborhoods, we have to invest in our neighbors – that will make us all safer. Join our fight to heal the wounds of injustice, in the name of a more just world.