In the wake of the 2020 uprisings following the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless other Black and brown people whose lives have been cut short by police violence, conversations about the abolition of the prison industrial complex (including police, prisons, and surveillance) increasingly entered the mainstream discourse. Only a few months later, the Movement for Black Lives released the BREATHE Act, a comprehensive proposal to divest resources from law enforcement and mass incarceration and invest them in an inspiring model of community safety. The Act proposes adopting non-carceral approaches and building sustainable, equitable communities as part of an overarching goal of addressing the root causes of mass incarceration, including poverty, disability, houselessness, and domestic violence.
At the core of this vision is the recognition that mass incarceration and police violence do not exist in isolation, but are part of institutions that reach into every aspect of our lives, including childcare, mental health, and schooling. “The current moment requires a solution that fundamentally shifts how we envision community-care and invest in our society. History is clear that we cannot achieve genuine safety and liberation until we abandon police, prisons, and all punishment paradigms,” reads the opening statement. Given the racialized history of policing and its role in upholding white supremacy, the BREATHE Act proposes a radical departure from a punishment system that treats Black and brown people as disposable. From the criminalization of poverty through inhumane policies like bail, to a school-to-prison pipeline that capitalizes on suspending Black children from school, and from punishing substance dependence to denying basic needs to immigrant people, the state has legitimized the slow death of communities of color. The BREATHE Act calls us back to focus on health and healing by enhancing the self-determination of Black communities.
The BREATHE Act has four main goals—divest federal resources from prisons and policing; invest in other forms of community safety; allocate funds to building healthy, sustainable, and equitable communities; and hold law enforcement officials accountable. Heeding calls to radically reimagine our ideas of justice and safety, the Act seeks to eliminate the ability of law enforcement to commit violence against and otherwise harm Black and brown people with impunity.
Divesting from Incarceration
The first prong of the proposal is to eliminate all federal programs and agencies used to finance and expand the U.S. criminal legal system, including community oriented policing services, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). While skeptics advocate for reforming current systems of policing, the BREATHE Act calls for a complete overhaul that would make direct changes to policing, prosecution, sentencing, and jailing practices that disproportionately criminalize vulnerable populations. Black, brown, and Indigenous communities, disabled folks, and LGBTQ+ people have stood for too long at the crossfire of a punishment system that dramatically reduces their life chances. The BREATHE Act seeks to address this harm by eliminating surveillance programs that target people of color and Muslims, eliminating mandatory minimum policies and life sentences, decriminalizing drug offenses, and ending “three strikes” laws.
Investing in Community
BREATHE offers “a vision that answers the call to defund the police and allows all communities to finally BREATHE free.” The proposal identifies new models of community safety, creating programs that incentivize decarceration. Given the disproportionate amount of federal, state, and local taxpayer dollars that respond to community needs with state harm, the Act calls for the subsidy of non-punitive approaches to safety. These would include projects like federal grants to incentivize state and local jurisdictions to close detention facilities, which would then be reinvested into funding non-carceral interventions that improve community safety. The Act recognizes that elected and appointed officials, focused on their own bottom line, have catered to people’s worst retributive instincts and have failed to protect Black communities. In response, BREATHE calls for the adoption of transformative justice frameworks and neighborhood mediation programs to address most of the intra-community harm that is now delegated to the police. In addition, the Act proposes training in violence and abuse interruption programs, supportive housing options, and employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated people.
Building Health, Sustainability, and Equity
History has taught us that we cannot achieve true safety and liberation until we abolish police and prisons. Responding to an unprecedented moment of national reckoning with systemic racism, the BREATHE Act calls for the reallocation of resources away from the prison industrial complex and towards building healthy, sustainable, and equitable communities for all people. The third prong of the BREATHE Act offers a roadmap for reallocating funds, by establishing a grant to promote educational justice by incentivizing jurisdictions to make equity-focused changes at schools. Programming that supports foster youth, the children of incarcerated people, and access to lifetime education for all people would bring us a step closer to responding to the cries for change that followed the high-profile killings of Black people last year.
Unlike our current systems of punishment, which produce rather than prevent violence, the Act proposes a holistic approach to community safety, which would extend investment to promote environmental justice, healthcare, family justice, and food security. “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 said when the Act launched.
Demanding Accountability and Reparations
The last section of the Act seeks accountability from law enforcement by requiring Congress to address the lasting harms that it has caused to Black communities and provide reparations for mass criminalization. While acknowledging that justice and healing must be on our horizon, BREATHE seeks to address the past 400 years of harm by demanding an end to voter suppression and disenfranchisement and wiping out the vestiges of Jim Crow. These bold, progressive steps to build public safety systems that benefit all of us calls for a radical examination of punishment that goes beyond theory and into policy making actions. BREATHE comes in the heels of a watershed moment that demands structural and transformative change in ways we have not seen for decades.
One of the central premises of the Act is the idea that it’s necessary to build capacity in communities by supporting organizations with longstanding histories and connections to different groups of people and investing resources in public safety systems that respond to each community’s needs. Fighting systemic and institutional racism thus involves centering the knowledge communities have about how to keep themselves safe.
In the midst of a global pandemic that has highlighted and exacerbated countless issues of structural injustice, the Movement for Black Lives has called for a public acknowledgment of the way racial inequality is intimately tied into our justice system. Demands to take away the power of those who perpetuate this inequality cannot be separated from demands to defund the prison industrial complex. Making the BREATHE Act a reality depends on all of us. In fact, we are already winning—this January community organizers passed the state-version of the BREATHE Act in Illinois, marking the first step toward adoption in other states and counties. For too long, Black people have been forced to hold their breath. No more. In the words of BLM Executive Director, Patrisse Cullors, “We built the roadmap to take us away from harm and towards health and healing—now, we hope they follow it.”