Fresh off of his win in a New York congressional district, Jamaal Bowman talks about defunding the NYPD and shrinking the criminal legal system.
Both parties have championed the punitive politics of recent decades. Jamaal Bowman now wants to help the Democratic Party move away from them and toward “dismantling mass incarceration.”
Bowman defeated 32-year U.S. Representative Eliot Engel in the June 23 Democratic primary, in a major coup for the New York left. The Associated Press only called the race for him today, after seeing some absentee ballot returns; Bowman leads 56 percent to 40 percent as of Friday morning. This congressional district covers parts of the Bronx and Westchester, just north of the district where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez scored a similar upset two years ago.
The primary campaign’s final stretch played out amid the nationwide protests against racism in law enforcement and against the ballooning size of the criminal legal system. Bowman faulted Engel for supporting the 1994 crime bill, which contributed to fueling incarceration, and, unlike Engel, he embraced many Black Lives Matter activists’ goal of defunding the police.
In the wake of the election, I asked Bowman about his views on how he intends to further the movement against mass incarceration and police brutality.
“As a Black man in America, I know what it’s like to feel occupied in my own community,” Bowman said. “Policing is the gateway to the corrupt system of mass incarceration, which has left many people in communities of color, especially working class communities of color, feeling terrorized.”
In the Q&A below, Bowman also makes the case for “defunding the police” and “reallocating resources,” for giving all incarcerated people an opportunity for release after 10 years, abolishing felony disenfranchisement, and decriminalizing sex work, among other measures that could transform criminal justice in the country.
But he also emphasized that achieving such transformations will require continued activism. “There has been a sea change on this issue because of long-term social movement building, community organizing, and the past six years of uprisings by the Black Lives Matter movement that are increasingly being translated into candidates like myself being swept into office,” he said. “We’ve got to keep protesting, marching, running primary challengers, and ushering in a new generation of leaders in every institution.”
The Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited.
In the past, you have linked your views on policing and your experiences being pulled over and arrested by police officers. How have such experiences shaped your sense of how policing fuels racial inequality?
I lived through Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk era. Police attacked me when I was an 11-year-old boy. I’ve been arrested and accused of stealing my own car, pulled over and handcuffed for not properly signaling, and knocked around by police officers for rough housing with my friends when I was just a kid. As a Black man in America, I know what it’s like to feel occupied in my own community. I have my own lived experiences and I see the brutality happening all around me. Policing is the gateway to the corrupt system of mass incarceration, which has left many people in communities of color, especially working class communities of color, feeling terrorized.
Many activists are calling to shrink the police, including by defunding if not disbanding departments. Do you support those calls? Should there be parallel efforts to shrink the footprint of the criminal legal system, if not defund prosecutor’s offices and prison systems?
Before I founded CASA, I was the dean of students at a high school, where I watched students walking through metal detectors every day, being criminalized for simply existing. As an educator, I saw firsthand how poverty, created by bad policy, results in trauma that builds on top of discriminatory policies like stop-and-frisk policing. If we defund police and shift funding to things like healthcare, wellness, trauma centers, drug and alcohol treatment, peer support networks, and restorative justice programs, we won’t have a need for such a large, militarized police force. We can have fewer cops, and replace them with Crisis Care units of violence interrupters, social workers, and mental health intervention.
We need to truly cut the NYPD budget—not just shift that money to the education department to put more police officers in schools instead of guidance counselors. This requires a reimagining of public safety and a thorough, objective investigation into how NYPD conducts themselves. That investigation also includes standing up to police unions that protect members with histories of misconduct and abuse.
Defunding the police means reallocating resources toward public health and investing in alternatives with people who are adequately trained to do the jobs we’re asking armed police to do: helping the homeless, responding to domestic incidents, monitoring students in schools, responding to people with mental illness, and responding to minor complaints like, for example, someone handing over a counterfeit $20 bill. We need unarmed people from the community who are trained to de-escalate: social workers, counselors, etc. We should ensure that public defenders offices are being robustly funded as well.
There are frequent demands to end the war on drugs and not incarcerate people over drug offenses, but often the proposed solutions still rely on policies and programs run from within the criminal legal system—by prosecutors, by courts—with the threat of jail looming. So what role should law enforcement play when it comes to substance use and drug possession? What would it take to bolster other systems outside criminal justice to tackle substance use?
I lived through the crack era in New York City and saw firsthand how it accelerated mass incarceration. I watched friends and family members suffer, I saw people I loved locked up in cages. No one should be in jail because they suffer from addiction to drugs, and we should be wary of solutions to the war on drugs that expand the criminal legal system and further criminalize low-income people and communities of color. First, we must drop low-level drug offenses, legalize and regulate marijuana and ensure that communities most impacted by the racist war on drugs receive the most benefits from legalization, and clear all prior marijuana convictions. Then, we need to go one step further.
Drug law enforcement should be extremely limited. We should be focusing on reducing demand if we’re looking to reduce crime, which could include maintenance therapy or safe injection sites. While progressive action and rhetoric at the social level is helpful for reform, we also need to see a shift in how the law is applied at the state level among state prosecutors.
So much of the criminal legal system is driven by state laws and local prosecutors, and only a small share of incarcerated people are in the federal system. So what’s the biggest step Congress can take to decrease incarceration?
The 1994 crime bill used federal dollars to incentivize states and localities to build more prisons, hire more police, and incarcerate people. We can use federal dollars to incentivize states and localities to decarcerate, close down prisons, and reallocate funds from law enforcement to public health. We must also prioritize ending mandatory minimum sentencing.
There’s been a bipartisan rush to toughen criminal legal rules in recent decades. This has changed in recent years, to be sure. But do you think the Democratic Party is changing enough on this set of issues, and how do you think you can contribute to pushing it further?
There has been a sea change on this issue because of long-term social movement building, community organizing, and the past six years of uprisings by the Black Lives Matter movement that are increasingly being translated into candidates like myself being swept into office. The party is changing dramatically from being “tough on crime” in the 1990s to increasingly becoming the party of dismantling mass incarceration through and through. But there’s still a lot of work to do. We’ve got to keep protesting, marching, running primary challengers, and ushering in a new generation of leaders in every institution. And if Joe Biden is elected, which I hope he is, we have to hold him accountable to a robust agenda that meets the needs of our communities.
One specific position you have taken during the campaign that goes further than what the House leadership has proposed is to abolish felony disenfranchisement, and to guarantee the right to vote to all voting-age citizens, including when they’re in prison. The federal legislation HB1 would restore people’s voting rights if they aren’t presently incarcerated. Why do you advocate for that extra step, and what would you say to your colleagues if you join the House to make that case?
I believe in true, universal suffrage. Evidence shows that disenfranchisement actually exacerbates outcomes for people who are incarcerated. Furthermore, there is absolutely no evidence that disenfranchisement is a deterrent to violent crime. If the ultimate goal is truly to reduce the likelihood of future offenses and reintegrate the formerly incarcerated back into society, then guaranteeing the right to vote for every citizen—incarcerated or not—is the obvious choice. Undermining voting rights is also a slippery slope that leads directly to discriminatory outcomes. We must combat voter suppression in all its forms.
The death penalty is declining but tens of thousands are certain to die in prison because of life without the possibility of parole sentences or their functional equivalents. And you yourself have called for a life sentence in the past. But U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley has introduced federal legislation that would end life without parole sentences and make any prisoner eligible for parole after some lengthy period. Do you support doing away with life without parole sentences, or do you support other mechanisms to pull back on excessive sentences?
I support Ayanna Pressley’s People’s Justice Guarantee to put justice back in the hands of people directly impacted by generations of oppression and mass incarceration. When I wrote that op-ed, I was an angry and distraught middle school principal who watched a child be murdered in my community on camera. I’ve gone through a lifelong process to better understand how we can address violence in our communities. We should provide incarcerated people with a meaningful opportunity for release after a decade, and no one should be forced to die in jail, especially elderly people.
You have stated that you support decriminalizing sex work; there’s been a bill filed to this effect in New York State but it has not move forward yet. What makes you support this reform, and what would you tell New York politicians who may be hesitating about it?
Combating human trafficking in the sex trade is a serious issue, but SESTA/FOSTA puts sex workers, people who are disproportionately LGBTQ and people of color, at risk and make it more difficult to access health and social services. People whose work involves consensual sex should not be put in harm’s way. The broad consequences of criminalizing sex work certainly outweigh public perception or politics, which is why I support Representative Ro Khanna and Representative Barbara Lee’s legislation to conduct a national study on the impacts on sex workers from SESTA/FOSTA, to shine a light on those consequences.
The story has been updated to reflect the Associated Press’s decision to call the election for Jamaal Bowman.