DETROIT — Proposed federal legislation that would radically transform the nation’s criminal justice system through such changes as eliminating agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration and the use of surveillance technology was unveiled Tuesday by the Movement for Black Lives.
Dubbed the BREATHE Act, the legislation is the culmination of a project led by the policy table of the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of more than 150 organizations. It comes at an unprecedented moment of national reckoning around police brutality and systemic racism that has spurred global protests and cries for change after several high-profile killings of Black Americans, including George Floyd.
“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 cofounder Patrisse Cullors said. “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 are sweeping and likely to receive robust pushback from lawmakers who perceive the legislation as too radical.
University of Michigan professor and criminal justice specialist Heather Ann Thompson acknowledged the uphill battle, but noted that the 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 grass-roots protests that we saw on the streets.”
No members of Congress have yet said they plan to introduce the bill, but it has won early support among some of the more progressive lawmakers, including Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib, who participated in Tuesday’s news conference.
The bill is broken into four sections, the first of which specifically would divest federal resources from incarceration and policing. The other sections lay out a detailed plan to achieve an equitable future, calling for sweeping changes that would eliminate federal programs and agencies “used to finance and expand” the US criminal-legal system.