• October 28, 2020

Black Caucus isn’t Giving Up on Criminal Justice Reform

 Black Caucus isn’t Giving Up on Criminal Justice Reform

Barbara Lee and Congressional Black Caucus Marijuana Press Capitol

With ballots already flying – or skidding? – through the mail because of the coronavirus pandemic, Election 2020 is already underway. But as the hours until November’s actual Election Day keep winding down and after a summer of protests – along with some riots and lots of unrest – members of the Congressional Black Caucus want protestors to know the priorities they hit American’s streets over are also represented in Congress.  

Leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus (or CBC) unveiled The Jobs and Justice Act of 2020 at the US Capitol this week. It’s basically a compilation of more than 200 separate bills – from education to housing, and just about everything in between – rolled into one. And it shows drug and criminal justice reforms are central focuses for some in the caucus.

That’s especially the case for Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). She’s a co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus. She says this new proposal includes the MORE Act (which was also just  punted until after November’s elections by Democratic leaders). It’s legislation to decriminalize marijuana nationally that also invests in communities left blighted by the war on ‘drugs.’ It would surely be a game changer.  

“[It] finally ends the harmful war on drugs and provides for restorative justice funding to provide for job training, jobs and business ownership for African American individuals and the African American community,” Lee told reporters at the Capitol. “This is a very bold and visionary piece of legislation.”

Lee says the nation’s criminal justice system “is rooted in 401 years of systemic racism” and “we have to continue with this fight to provide opportunity and justice for Black people in America.”

For Lee, that means much more than just drug reform is needed to start to heal the wounds, scars and scabs left in the wake of the decades long war on ‘drugs,’ which has left entire African American and Latino communities blighted from the effects of mass incarceration. That’s why the anti-poverty portions of this legislative proposal attempt to provide the economic rehabilitation countless communities have been deprived of since the 1970s when the government legalized racism by imbedding it in the nation’s drug laws.

The CBC’s proposal attempts to address those needs. It increases SNAP – or food stamp – benefits, invests in “equitable” transportation in low income communities (cause you can’t work if you can’t get to work), increases funding for modern schools in urban and rural communities alike, and establishes “baby bonds” of $1,000 for all American children in an attempt to level the playing field for all American children.  

“These policies seek to combat years of systemically racist policies that have disproportionately impacted Black and Brown people,” Lee said. “The role of the CBC at this historical moment is to really identify, fight for and bring about the most significant legislative reform and maximize resources to help the Black community not just survive the pandemic, but to prepare to thrive in its aftermath.”

Ending mass incarceration for non-violent drug offenders is a priority for the CBC, but that’s not the most important item on their agenda. The package also includes many other items that often go overlooked because they seem small – but they aren’t. The legislation also would invest millions of dollars in a program to distribute free diapers and other hygiene products to low income families.  

“One in three families experienced diaper needs, which often lead to negative public health outcomes for vulnerable children. Black low-income families are out of money by the end of the month and have to choose between purchasing diapers or food and that is a fact,” Lee said.

Now, with the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – and President Trump and the GOP rushing to fill the vacancy ASAP – CBC members fear the protections the Black community won over the decades are going to quickly erode. That’s why these lawmakers are fighting to enshrine protections in law.

“Many in our community have looked to the Highest Court in the land for justice: for job justice, for civil rights justice, for voting justice, for the individual protections of your body,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) told reporters at the Capitol. “The burden to correct the ills of this nation will fall heavily on legislators to write laws that will protect those who have felt the brunt of inequities and disparities in the nation.”

The CBC members say they’re not trying to co-opt the Black Lives Matter – or BLM – movement. Rather, they merely want to give legislative voice to protestors.

“The justice aspect of [our bill] is to grab hold of all the issues that the community voices have raised, to grab hold of all of the peaceful protesters that have asked for a better way to ensure that we have a nation that adopts the dignity of all people. This bill is filling the gap,” Jackson Lee said. “My fear is that the courts now, under the appointment web of this administration, will not see vulnerable people the way they should be seen, and that their justice may be challenged in those courts.”

Jackson Lee says the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act were passed to protect Blacks and – even in 2020 – legislation is needed to do the same.   

“This legislation will step in and try to cure the ills of society,” Jackson Lee said. “They have to depend on us [legislators] if they can’t depend on a fair and just court system.”

The proposal also would invest more federal funds in combating coronavirus in minority communities, increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour and help former convicts erase their past criminal records.

The proposal also includes The Safe Justice Act, which tries to upend the nation’s overcrowded prison system. It ends most mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

Instead it would put the focus and resources into trying to eliminate cartels. It also encourages more probation and job training opportunities for convicts; as opposed to the cold, hard, and unforgiving bars the government currently provides prisoners. That act alone could send ripples across the US justice system, economy and the broader American community.

“The Safe Justice Act takes an evidence-based approach to improving the criminal justice system by focusing on evidence and research rather than slogans and sound bites,” Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) told reporters at the Capitol. “It begins with an emphasis on crime prevention, early intervention and rehabilitation and ends the criminalization of poverty, eliminates mandatory minimums and funds prison education and rehabilitation programs, as well as a second chance after release.” 

Matt Laslo

Matt Laslo

Based in Washington, Matt Laslo is a veteran political and music reporter. Since 2006, he’s been a contributor with VICE News, VICE News Tonight HBO, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Billboard, The Atlantic, NPR, etc. He’s taught journalism at Boston University (MA) and The University of Maryland (BA). And he teaches political communications at The Johns Hopkins University MA in Government and Public Policy program. He can be found on most all social media platforms as @MattLaslo.

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