“With liberty and justice for all.” Even as a fifth grader with my hand held over my heart, I knew those emphatic words were an aspiration, not yet an affirmation in America. Growing up the child of an incarcerated parent, I had seen firsthand injustices it would take years to put words to.
Today, after months of community uprisings against police violence and systemic racism, our nation is in a moment of reckoning. Across our country, people from all backgrounds have rallied, protested, and voted for long-overdue change. The people demand that we move with urgency to build a more just America. An America where our policies and our budgets affirm that Black Lives Matter. This moment has drawn attention to the injustices perpetuated by our legal system—a system quick to criminalize people and slow to invest in the resources and supports needed to truly build safe and thriving communities.
On the heels of their historic election victory, President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris have an opportunity and responsibility to respond to the diverse and multigenerational movement that elected them by fundamentally redefining what justice—and the institutions purported to advance it—look like in America.
A year ago, in close partnership with activists, advocates, and those most impacted, I introduced the People’s Justice Guarantee, outlining a path toward justice. As this new administration prepares to take office, the People’s Justice Guarantee offers a bold and expansive framework to transform our criminal legal system, meet the scale of the crisis before us, and finally make good on America’s promise of justice for all.
Centering five key principles—shared power, freedom, equality, human dignity, and safety—the People’s Justice Guarantee lays out a vision for a more equitable and just nation. A nation where our communities are safe because we take care of everyone, including our most vulnerable and marginalized neighbors. A nation where the legal system centers our collective freedom, rather than our oppression. Where we are focused on our people, not profits. Where those in need are met with compassion, not criminalization. Where our path to justice and healing is driven and informed by community. And where those closest to the pain are closest to the power.
Under the current system of mass incarceration, false notions of public safety have meant the brutal criminalization and over-policing of Black, brown, and Indigenous communities. While the officials who designed these racist policies claimed they were doing so in the interest of public safety, it’s clear the reality is quite the opposite. The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country on the planet, with Black Americans incarcerated at over five times the rate of white people. Nearly 2 million people with mental illness are arrested annually, and over a million are imprisoned each year for drug possession. Countless others are incarcerated for crimes of poverty.
This systemic injustice has ruined lives, torn apart families, and decimated entire communities. Nearly half of all adults living in the United States have experienced incarceration in their family, and more than 5 million children have had a parent in jail or prison during the course of their childhood—myself included.
This is why the People’s Justice Guarantee calls for a new era of mass decarceration and an end to the for-profit prison industry that has shamefully monetized the practice of inflicting pain, suffering, and destabilization on our Black and brown communities.
While dismantling mass incarceration is a critical priority, it must be accompanied by a radical transformation of the way we invest in public safety. Budgets are statements of our values, which is why we must divest from the inherently unjust carceral system and reinvest in programs and services that uplift our communities.
Instead of spending over a billion dollars to place police officers in schools—perpetuating the school-to-confinement pathway that disproportionately harms Black and brown students, LGBTQ+ students, and those with disabilities—we should be investing in counselors and other trauma-informed staff to allow students to learn, grow, and thrive. Rather than spend nearly $200 billion to keep people behind bars for decades, we should be providing resources for formerly incarcerated individuals to successfully reenter society.
Creating a just legal system is not impossible. It is a matter of political will, plain and simple. And we are seeing that public pressure is driving action.
This month, Los Angeles County passed Measure J, becoming one of the first counties to commit to addressing racial injustice by investing in community-based medical and mental health treatment, affordable housing, and jobs.
Additionally, over a dozen cities and counties across the country passed ballot initiatives to advance policies that will root out racial inequities in the legal system, including legalizing marijuana and strengthening police accountability. These successful initiatives demonstrate nationwide support and momentum for reforming our criminal legal system.
In this moment of reckoning, we must be bold. For too long, we have been told to compromise when it comes to our collective liberation and pursuit of justice.
Another world is possible—if we work for it. Together, we have the power to make that world a reality and deliver the People’s Justice Guarantee.