Justice Reform

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.

As your Congressperson, I will work alongside you every day to:

End The School-To-Prison Pipeline:
For over a decade, I’ve worked directly with the families most impacted by mass incarceration. In the New York City Department of Education, there is a system in place that allows you to suspend a child from school with just a few clicks of a button. Why then is there no system in place to just as easily provide children with the mental healthcare and support they may need? The system is designed to push kids out rather than bring them in. As an educator and principal, you see the impact on children and their families everyday. We must never treat children like adults in our justice system. 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?

That’s why I decided to open my own school, and do things differently. The Cornerstone Academy for Social Action is a district public community school in the North Bronx located in a historically oppressed community that’s been impacted by racist policies like redlining, disinvestment, and Congressional legislation including the ’94 crime bill. We are a restorative justice school that educates the whole child. And we guide them toward becoming transformative agents of change in their own communities. We have conquered the school-to-prison pipeline. I’m proud of what we have done.

But CASA is just the beginning. It’s just one school. If we want to cure our addiction to neglect and torture, we have to start at the top. We can’t rely on the same politicians who created our horrific criminal justice system to be the ones to fix it. We need leadership that reflects our communities and our experiences. The kids and families I work 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. More police and lengthy sentences are not the solution.

That’s why I support ending the practice of trying children in adult court and ensuring that we invest in counselors and wrap-around services for children rather than metal detectors and more policing.

Legalize and Regulate Marijuana, End the War on Drugs:
Drug-related arrests have tripled since 1980 and nearly half of them have been related to marijuana. The system is filled with discriminatory outcomes. The same crime is punished more harshly when the perpetrator is a person of color. Black Americans are six times as likely to be arrested on drug-related charges than white Americans and four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, even though there is little to no racial disparity in marijuana use. Consequently, nearly 80 percent of people in federal prisons for drug-related crimes are black and 60 percent of those serving at the state level are black or Latinx. Marijuana odor is still the most common pretext for police stops, even though the War on Drugs is an abject failure and has been denounced across the world.

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. It is not okay for the people who perpetrated this heinous, racist war against mostly young black and brown people to now profit off of the marijuana industry.

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.

No one should be in jail because they suffer from addiction to drugs. Nobody should be criminalized for possession of drugs. We should be advocating for services such as treatment-on-demand, drug maintenance programs, harm reduction centers and safe consumption medical services to confront addiction, overdose deaths and HIV. We must provide people struggling with a substance use disorder with treatment-on-demand through a Medicare-for-All, single-payer system. We must prioritize expanding health and harm reduction resources in low-income communities of color, where overdose rates are now rising most rapidly.

Repeal the 1994 Crime Bill.
My opponent, Eliot Engel, championed and voted for the 1994 crime bill. The 1994 crime bill was written by politicians who wanted to show that they were ‘tough on crime.’ The bill gave states $10 billion to build more prisons; increased policing; kept people in prison longer through provisions like the “three strikes” rule (mandatory sentence of life without parole for committing a third violent or drug trafficking crime); created 60 new death penalty offenses; and permitted 13-year olds to be tried as adults. The result? The crime bill has filled our nation’s prisons and jails with our fellow Americans – most of them black or Latino. At the time, Representative Maxine Waters testified against these provisions and said: “The implementation of the ‘three-strikes’ law and subsequent mandatory sentencing schemes perpetuated a downward spiral for African Americans.” We spent and keep spending billions of dollars on incarceration and enforcement, instead of prevention and rehabilitation.

But make no mistake – there is a lot of bad legislation that we must repeal to end the scourge of mass incarceration.

Ending Excessive Sentencing and Mandatory Minimums
This includes eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing; ending the prosecution of low-level drug possession (the most common cause of arrest in the U.S.); ending civil asset forfeiture (which allows the government to seize property from individuals without due process); and eliminating 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. In addition, we must retroactively reduce drug sentences for those currently incarcerated and expunge old criminal records for those who have already been released.

Eliminate Cash Bail
Bail 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.

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.

I support Representative Ro Khanna and Representative Barbara Lee’s legislation to conduct a national study on the impacts on sex workers from SESTA/FOSTA. SESTA/FOSTA has harmed sex workers and has made it more difficult to access health and social services. The bill has received the support of groups like Lambda Legal, the ACLU, and the Sex Worker Outreach Project USA, and Advocating Opportunity. The national study will likely show what people who do sex work are telling us every day, and further confirm what so much evidence shows – websites like Craigslist that advertised sex work reduced violence against all women – not just sex workers – by roughly 17%. Criminalizing sex work has broad consequences and people whose work involves consensual sex should not be put in harm’s way by the government.

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.

Decriminalize Immigration, End Mass Deportation
We must end Section 287(g) under the Immigration and Nationality Act which drives local police departments to feed our mass deportation machine. We must abolish ICE, place a moratorium on deportations, and end family separations.

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. We must invest in these critical service providers who do so much of the uncoregnized heavy lifting for our communities. Every victim of our criminal justice system should come out to a job and housing with opportunity for advancement. Housing and jobs are the keys to preventing future crime, and we should be building our neighbors up instead of breaking them down. That means investing in community organizations and creating good-paying jobs with pensions in these social service fields. People should be incentivized to do good for their neighbors – government should help build and foster that opportunity.

Restore Voting Rights for Incarcerated People
Evidence shows that disenfranchisement exacerbates outcomes for people who are incarcerated. 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. Voting must be a right – and rights must not be abridged, because that slippery slope quickly leads to discriminatory outcomes across the board, including in broader voter suppression efforts. We must combat voter suppression in all its forms – we must protect rights in all their forms – we must ensure every American can vote.

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. That’s why I support the “Justice Is Not For Sale Act" spearheaded by Raul Grijalva and Bernie Sanders. But here, too, there is more work to be done. Private prisons are an awful but small part of the problem – the much larger problem is private profitization of prison, including public jails and prisons. Too many corporations make too much money off the backs of people who are incarcerated.

Fines and fees criminalize poverty and line 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. 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. People who have paid their debts to society should not owe additional financial debts.

Invest in Our Neighborhoods:
It is time to start treating public health problems with public health solutions. We have to invest in public education, housing, transportation, job training, mental healthcare, and shift first responder responsibilities so that people who are called to a situation involving behavioral health issues are trained service providers instead of armed police. If we take care of our people instead of breaking them down, our neighborhoods will thrive. It is time to invest in schools and communities, not cages.

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.