watercolor and collage flowers, stars, clouds, and the words "Divest for policing and invest in community" with black background

Artwork by Nina Yagual @beautifulhoodcrumb

The Peace & Justice Center calls for the decarceration & demilitarization of society leading to the eventual abolition of systems of punishment.

This statement is put forth by the Board of Directors of the Peace & Justice Center with leader authorship by Jayna Ahsaf and TJ Sangaré.

The Peace & Justice Center uses our mission and principles as guiding lights when deciding what is best for our organization. Our organization’s purpose is to address social injustices that inhibit the creation of a peaceful and just society. Because of the gross injustices and human rights violations committed by the policing, prison, and military systems, we call for the decarceration and demilitarization of society. When we fully invest in and establish community-based rehabilitation services and social safety networks and employ peace and diplomacy to address international conflict, we will be able to abolish systems that perpetuate violence and punishment.

Incarceration, militarization, and policing enable and perpetuate systemic racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of dominance, climate disruption, and economic disparities. They serve to oppress, terrorize, and demonize certain populations — namely Black, Latinx, Indigenous, trans, houseless, poor, and disabled people. Racialized crime, policing, and the prison and military-industrial complexes have devastated the most at-risk and vulnerable communities nationally and globally by tearing apart generations of families and destroying the futures of millions.

The problem of mass incarceration has been exacerbated by the privatization of prison services and the growth of the private prison sector. It has created an incentive to retain and increase the number of prisoners for profit. The policing and military systems are filled with corruption and structured to prevent them from doing what they claim to do: rehabilitating and protecting our communities. Protecting white capital and supremacy was the intended purpose of policing. In the south, “slave patrols” assumed responsibility for capturing and returning runaway slaves and later for the “re-enslavement” of freed slaves under a loophole in the 13th Amendment. These “slave patrols” morphed into our current policing institutions. Up north, the police were an instrument of labor control, enacting violence against strikers and engaging in union breaking. The origins of policing continue to bleed down, affecting how punishment systems operate and perpetuate systemic racism today.

Punishment and military systems are used to control capital nationally and internationally. They are parallel tools of economic oppression that perpetuate, not alleviate, violence. Looking at our community here in Vermont, the placement of the F35s at the Burlington International Airport is an example of the military’s disregard of Black, brown, and poor people. The flight path over Winooski, Vermont’s most racially diverse city, causes physical and mental harm, devalues property, and risks large scale disaster should a plane crash. The F35s’ harm is not limited to Vermont. Thanks to lobbyists hard at work in Washington, DC, these planes are produced and sold internationally in order to devastate and kill people overseas. 

Similar to the concept of defunding the police, our country’s overblown defense budget should be reallocated to departments and services that directly, and positively, impact the American people like tuition-free college, food programs, planned parenthood, reduction of fossil fuel emissions, clean energy, public transportation, free healthcare, and affordable housing/ending houselessness. In 2020, the federal budget allocated $738 billion for national security. The outrageous amount of money poured into these systems is not just occurring on a federal level, but on state and local levels, as well. In 2019, Vermont spent $146.6 million on corrections. In Burlington, the police department’s total expenses for 2019 was $12.5 million. It increased by 5.5% in 2020 leading to a whopping $17.9 million at their disposal. These numbers make it clear that decision-makers prioritize punishment and surveillance over community development.

Our involvement in the Middle East, where we have killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, displaced millions, and forever traumatized generations, has pushed a narrative that violence is necessary, and certain people need to be controlled. This mentality does not apply only to perceptions of foreign countries; our glorification of the military and harmful rhetoric towards foreign nations (specifically the Middle East) has contributed to this same sentiment existing towards those within U.S. borders. This mindset is a driving force that leads to the obsession with militarizing the police. We are a country fueled by fear. We believe the false narrative that the U.S. would fall into uncontrollable violence and turmoil without a police state. In reality, fewer police and more social services are what we need. Medical professionals for mental health issues; addressing student conduct with counselors instead of school resource officers; more social workers for domestic abuse incidents; unarmed highway patrol for traffic violations; all of these things would lead to less crime and violence and towards a safer community. 

Many people do not realize that the suffering we cause in foreign nations is in our economic interest. Similarly, many of the disproportionate trends seen in our policing and prison systems derive from financial incentives (slave patrol, prison labor, private prisons, police ticket incentives, war on drugs, etc.). So many individuals see the military as a different entity because they are outside the country “protecting our freedoms.” But look at the places where we have military involvement and note the chaos, trauma, orphans, and the destruction of cultural and religious sites that we have caused. Then, note how we refuse to give those same people refuge when they want to rebuild their lives. The irony is that we want to “liberate” them but are too racist and narrow-minded to welcome them in our towns.  

In the 1970s, Grace Lee Boggs wrote an outline for what an organization should look like based on the Manifesto for the Black Revolutionary Party. She explained that if we don’t change our ways of thinking and relating to one another, then when power changes hands, the same oppression will continue under different people. She said the changes must be rooted in love, and that “transformative organizing involves doing the work of loving each other in ways that seem ridiculous.” This brings us back to policing, military, and prisons. None of them are rooted in love. We have institutions where the only goal is to control people, they are not serving the community, and are indeed not rooted in love, which means they need to be abolished. 

In “Revolution and Evolution in the 20th Century,” Grace Lee Boggs and James Boggs say, “potential revolutionaries only become true revolutionaries if they take the side of those who believe humanity can be transformed.” Nothing changes in our society if we continue to look at people with a deficit view — thinking they need to be controlled — instead of looking for how to make sure people have what they need. As a society, we have failed to address a multitude of social issues that have led to our dependence on the police, prison, and military. By redirecting substantial funding for police, prisons, and the military back into the community, we can address the root causes of most criminal behavior: poverty and oppression. We can decouple the collective view of justice from a system of punishment to a system that fosters rehabilitation, transformation, and solidarity.

Prison Reform

  • Address the school to prison pipeline.
    • BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) students are disproportionately represented in school disciplinary actions. These disproportionate trends are especially prevalent in schools with school resource officers.
  • Close all private prisons as they create an incentive for more people to be arrested and sent to prison.
  • Release all inmates charged with low-risk offenses.
  • Ban solitary confinement.
  • Taking someone away from their loved ones and community is a punishment of its own. Life inside prison should be similar to life outside of prison. Facilities shouldn’t make inmates feel as if they are locked in a cage, but somewhere they can receive help and transform themselves.
    • Abolish unpaid prison labor and pay inmates at least minimum wage for their work.
  • Improve prison management.
    • Establish standard principles for the treatment of inmates by the jail and prison staff members.
    • Adequate rehab & healthcare facilities.
    • “Normalized” prison facilities.
    • Prison staff, including social workers, healers, and educators, who are there to actively help, engage, and build relationships with inmates instead of being there as a means of force and security, and adequately compensate them for their work.
  • Increased and improved social reintegration programs.
  • Significantly reduce pre-trial detention so that those who pose a danger to others are the only people held in custody.
  • Abolish cash bail.
  • Promote the use of restorative and transformative justice programs.
  • Provide adequate healthcare, education, healing opportunities, and job training services for all inmates and those re-entering society. 
    • Educational access for inmates should include the option to learn about their legal standings, legal representation including self-representation, voting and civil rights, understanding their own sentencing and appeal options and processes. Access to this education should also be available to the prison staff in order to foster a more supportive and engaged community within the facility. 
  • Create systems to support people leaving prisons and jails starting with rides from the institution upon release to long term housing, employment, and other needs to avoid recidivism.
  • Work towards the permanent closing of jails and stopping the construction of new ones.

 

Policing Reforms

  • Publicly collect adequate data on police activities, considering race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, and other relevant demographic categories.
  • Remove federal and state legal immunities that protect law enforcement officers from liability, and laws that keep police misconduct records inaccessible to the public.
  • Establish independent community oversight bodies, with full access to police records, subpoena power, authority to conduct investigations, and the power to discipline and terminate officers and command staff.
  • Radically restructure or, if necessary, disband police unions.
    • Police unions differ from traditional unions as police work carries the possibility of daily violence. This means protections negotiated in police contracts can shield officers from complaints that involve misconduct and violent incidents. Samuel Walker, a researcher on police unions and an emeritus professor at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, said, “In [police officer’s] contracts, police unions have all sorts of provisions which make it difficult to investigate and find officers guilty of misconduct.” Some of these provisions include: a “cooling-off” period (often 48 hours) before questioning police officers about using their firearm; allowing police officers to review all evidence against them before they are questioned; hiding misconduct and disciplinary records from the public; providing police officers with legal representation paid for by the city. Police unions enable abuses of power. They have successfully bargained for more job security than what is afforded to most workers, security that officers can rely on even after committing acts that would get anyone else fired or locked up. In many cases, disciplinary recommendations are ignored, complaints submitted are invalidated, and firings are overturned. Police unions cannot make it clearer that they unconditionally prioritize police officers and disregard those who police officers vow to “protect and serve.”
  • Disarm and demilitarize law enforcement.
  • End the use of surveillance technology.
    • Including, but is not limited to, drones, facial recognition, cell tower simulators, and algorithm-driven policing.
  • Remove police officers from hospitals and public schools.
  • Decriminalize homelessness, sex work, and all narcotics.
  • End police involvement with ICE and the enforcement of immigration laws.
  • Terminate incentive-driven programs and quotas.
    • Between petty traffic violations, ticket writing, and arrests, many police departments expect their officers to meet quotas, which creates an incentive to criminalize individuals. While such quotas are explicitly illegal in several states, any workplace, law enforcement or otherwise, will have “productivity goals.” If you don’t complete as many work tasks as your peers or compared to your previous work activity, you might hear about it from your supervisor; and if you can’t keep up with the goals, then you’ll find yourself on the outs with your boss and your team. The police operate in the same manner.
  • Ban the use of chemical irritants, water cannons, acoustic devices, or other weapons that cause pain or discomfort to multiple people.
  • Ban the use of neck restraints and chokeholds.
  • Require the non-bias investigation and prosecution of all law enforcement and correction officers for all civil rights violations, including but not limited to killings, beatings, false arrests, and harassment.
  • Automatically fire law enforcement officers for disengaging their body cameras.
  • Abolish no-knock warrants.
  • Report all use of deadly force to a citizen review board.
  • Require officers to intervene if they witness another officer using excessive force, including an immediate report to a non-bias review board.
  • Prioritize social services and community development.
    • Develop and preserve affordable housing and social services instead of policing homelessness.
    • Provide sufficient community-based voluntary drug treatment and harm reduction services.
    • Maintain effective, supportive, and voluntary mental health services in the community.
  • Improve the quality of schools in marginalized and impoverished areas.
    • Increase the funding of after-school, preschool, and childcare programs.
    • Eliminate school resources officers and stop bringing law enforcement to implement anti-bullying/anti-drug/social emotional programs. The money spent on policing in schools could be spent on trauma-informed, culturally relevant, affirming curriculum, and hiring more social workers, school nurses, and support staff.
  • Fund, promote, and encourage local initiatives that provide employment, training, and education for all people, including formerly incarcerated people.
  • Create crisis intervention teams and Co-responder teams
    • Crisis intervention: A select group of police officers receive intensive, special mental health training (which includes information on signs and symptoms of mental illnesses, treatment, de-escalation techniques, etc.). This training helps police respond appropriately to mental health crisis situations and divert people with mental health disorders to treatment and services rather than jail.
    • Co-responder: Mental health professionals assist the police during their interactions with people experiencing mental health crises. This helps law enforcement de-escalate, avoid arrest, and direct people struggling with their mental health to appropriate treatment and services.
  • Relieve police officers from the duty of traffic control and hire unarmed highway patrol people.
  • Create specialized courts to address people struggling with their mental health and/or those struggling with substance use disorder.
  • Issue citations in lieu of arrests.
  • Implement penal sanctions within the community, rather than a process of isolation from it.
  • Create healing spaces in our communities and build our skills and practices to support physical, mental, and emotional health including educational access for prisoners around their own legal standings and rights and also more robust educational requirements imposed on police officers. 

American society needs to stop looking to prisons as a way to control the population. The prison population in the United States is disproportionately, people of color, people with mental health conditions, people with substance addiction and people without economic means. The prison system is designed to not rehabilitate but to continue the cycle of incarceration. We need to implement alternatives to our failing incarceration system. This is a circular argument with a constant return to policing and systematic racism contributing to the over policing of impoverished and marginalized communities. The narrative that sensitivity training or culturally responsive policing will curb systematic racism is not only inaccurate, but a misunderstanding of the depths of systematic racism. As long as communities continue to invest in systems built on racism, systems built on oppression and control, communities will not be liberated. Our government has militarized the police, the police unions have more power than citizens, policing has become increasingly aggressive and citizens have been finding themselves targets of intrusive surveillance and searches. 

A world that prioritizes care over punishment is possible. All of our work is toward that vision.

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A separate statement on militarism and diplomatic solutions to international conflict will be presented at a future date.