Political Issues

‘The BREATHE Act’ Takes Defunding the Police to Congress

Erin Bunch

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Photo: Getty Images/ Sarah Silbiger / Stringer

A new bill announced Tuesday morning aims to legislate radical reform of the criminal justice system, addressing community concerns amplified by Black Lives Matter protesters in the wake of George Floyd’s death. The Breathe Act, championed by Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), is the result of the Movement for Black Lives coalition’s Electoral Justice Project.

The ambitious bill is divided into four sections. The first would effectively divert funds from the federal criminal-legal system, defunding incarceration systems and the police. Among other things, it would also end surveillance systems which disproportionately affect BIPOC (such as facial recognition), abolish mandatory minimum sentencing laws and the “three strikes law,” and retroactively decriminalize drug offenses.

The second section section incentivizes the investment of funds into community-led, non-punitive approaches to public safety, including but not limited to the funding of non-criminal intervention programs, community infrastructure, supportive housing, and health services. It would also abolish court fees and other fines imposed by the criminal-legal system, and forgive outstanding debts associated with the courts.

Next, the bill calls for grants to incentivize equality in school funding, so that wealth is no longer concentrated in areas with the highest property taxes. Such a grant would also require the creation of a plan to replace juvenile detention facilities with rehabilitation centers, and remove the police from schools. This section of the bill also calls for a reimagining of history curricula, support of foster youth, high-quality health care for students, and free public transportation for students.

It also deals with environmental justice, calling for the creation of grants to incentivize communities to offer clean water, breathable air, and clean energy to all citizens. It also offers protections for communities that will be hardest hit by the climate crisis.

Additionally, this part of The Breathe Act outlines a plan for the expansion of Medicaid, funding parental leave, extending employment protections and workers’ rights to organize, establishing a living wage (ending wages that are subminimum or rely on tipping), and piloting universal basic income programs, among other initiatives.

The final section of the bill attempts to hold congress accountable for past legislation which has negatively impacted communities of color. It also addresses voting rights and suppression, with the promise of supporting every citizen’s right to vote.

Ultimately, the bill’s proponents are positioning it as a modern Civil Rights Act which would further the cause of equality for all, and particularly Black people. And while The Breathe Act likely faces an uphill battle given the radical nature of its contents (and the Republican-held Senate), the New York Times reports that recent polling from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows that public attitudes towards the criminal justice have shifted, and that the majority of citizens are in favor of an overhaul. In other words, the ideas presented here may not be as radical as they seem.

The Breathe Act has not yet been formally introduced to congress. You can watch its announcement here.

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