Nearly 7 in 10 Americans say the criminal justice system needs major changes. The Movement for Black Lives bill is hoping to capitalize on that surge of support.
After more than six weeks (and counting) of protests following the police killing of George Floyd, the next steps of the fight for justice are beginning to take shape. The Movement for Black Lives—one of the leading civil rights groups in the nation—introduced a plan this week to radically overhaul America’s criminal justice system.
The proposal, dubbed the BREATHE Act, is broken up into four parts: divesting federal resources from incarceration and policing; investing in new approaches to community safety; allocating money to build healthy, sustainable, and equitable communities for all people; and a plan to hold officials accountable and enhance the self-determination of Black communities.
The effort, notably, would eliminate agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Agency, ban the use of surveillance technology by law enforcement, institute changes to pretrial detention, and remove police officers from schools.
The plan is the culmination of a project led by the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of more than 150 organizations, and comes amid ongoing protests against police brutality and the killing of Black Americans, such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Those protests, which began in May, peaked on June 6, when half a million people turned out in nearly 550 places across the United States, according to the New York Times.
While the number of protests has since decreased from that record-high, each day has seen new actions across the country. Over the July 4th weekend alone, protests were held in small towns like Ridgewood, New Jersey, medium-sized cities like Des Moines, Iowa and Tallahassee, Florida, and bustling metropolises like New York City.
In total, there have been at least 5,000—and potentially as many as 8,000—individual anti-racism/anti-police-brutality protests nationwide since the end of May, according to a Washington Post analysis of data from the Crowd Counting Consortium. Recent surveys suggest the protests might even be the largest movement in American history: Anywhere between 15 million to 26 million people in the U.S. have participated in demonstrations over the death of George Floyd and others in recent weeks.
“I’ve never seen self-reports of protest participation that high for a specific issue over such a short period,” Neal Caren, associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told the New York Times.
“Really, it’s hard to overstate the scale of this movement,” added Deva Woodly, an associate professor of politics at the New School.
The sheer size of the movement is not lost on those involved with the Movement for Black Lives.
“We stand on the shoulders of giants and there has been 400 years of work that Black people have done to try to get us closer to freedom,” Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors told the Associated Press. “This moment is a watershed moment. I think this moment calls for structural change and transformative change in ways that we haven’t seen in a very long time. We see this opportunity to push for the BREATHE Act as a part of what we’re calling the modern-day civil rights act.”
The proposed changes, first shared with the Associated Press, are sweeping and likely to be opposed by many lawmakers, but progressive lawmakers like Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts have embraced the proposal.
University of Michigan professor and criminal justice expert Heather Ann Thompson acknowledged the effort would be an uphill battle, but noted that the model legislation is being introduced at a highly opportune time.
“I think those programs that they’re suggesting eliminating only look radical if we really ignore the fact that there has been tremendous pressure to meaningfully reform this criminal justice system,” said Thompson, author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. “Every radical piece of legislation that we’ve ever passed in this country, it has passed on the heels of the kinds of grassroots protests that we saw on the streets. The will of the people indicates that if they just keep putting a Band-Aid on it, these protests are not going to go away.”
The protests have also had a sizable impact on Americans’ opinions of policing and race. A recent Associated Press-NORC poll found that 48% of all Americans say police violence against the public is a “very” or “extremely” serious problem, up from only about a third as recently as September 2019. Another 31% say it is a “moderately serious” problem. The majority of Americans now agree racism is a “very” or “extremely” serious problem in the U.S. and that police use of deadly force is more common against a black person.
Another AP poll found that 69% of Americans say the criminal justice system needs major changes, including 29% thinking it needs a “complete overhaul.”
The Movement for Black Lives is hoping to capitalize on that surge of support with its proposal, which includes efforts to:
- Divest federal resources from incarceration and policing;
- Eliminate federal programs and agencies “used to finance and expand” the U.S. criminal-legal system, such as the DEA and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency;
- Reduce the Department of Defense budget and eliminate the DoD’s 1033 program, which allows local law enforcement agencies to obtain excess military equipment;
- Institute changes to the policing, pretrial detention, sentencing and prosecution practices;
- Ban federal law enforcement from using facial-recognition technology as well as drones and forms of electronic surveillance such as ankle-monitoring;
- End civil asset forfeiture;
- Decriminalize and retroactively expunge drug convictions;
- End life sentences, abolish mandatory minimum sentencing laws, abolish the three strikes law, and develop a plan to shut down all federal prisons and immigration detention centers;
- Direct Congress to establish a Community Public Safety Office that would conduct research on non-punitive, public safety-focused interventions;
- Incentivize states communities to close detention facilities, jails, and state or youth prisons by offering a 50% federal match on projected savings;
- Incentivize jurisdictions to improve funding equity between schools;
- Remove police, school resource officers, and other armed security from schools.
“We are calling for the federal government to be creative in identifying new approaches to dealing with harm and violence in our communities as well as developing investments into building healthy, sustainable and equitable communities,” Cullors said.
The coalition plans to continue rolling out and expanding upon its plans ahead of its recently announced National Black Convention on Aug. 28.
“We are a generation that wants to make sure that the needs of all Black people are met,” Cullors told the AP. “We believe the BREATHE Act is that legislation. It’s an act that is pushing us to look at the future of this country, an act that is mandating and demanding a new future and policies that are courageous and visionary.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.