OPINION: This article contains commentary which may reflect the author's opinion
In an interview with Axios’s Jonathan Swan, progressive Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) defended a proposed bill that would empty federal prisons over the course of the next 10 years.
The bill, called the BREATHE Act, asks the Department of Justice to draw up a “roadmap for prison abolition.” The bill demands the “full decarceration of federal detention facilities within 10 years” and “a moratorium on all new federal prison, jail, immigrant and youth detention construction.”
In 2020, Tlaib endorsed the bill amid a wave of anti-police sentiment.
Swan asked Tlaib whether she had “wrestled with potential downsides” of releasing all federal prisoners, which includes drug lords and sex traffickers.
“I think everyone’s like, oh my god, we’re going to just release everybody,” Tlaib said. “That’s not what I’m saying.”
“That’s exactly what the bill says,” Swan interjected.
“Yeah, but did you see how many people are mentally ill that are in prison right now?” Tlaib responded.
According to a study conducted by the National Research Council, 45 percent of federal prisoners reported some mental issues, but most of these are not seriously debilitating, ranging from anxiety to mild depression. In the entirety of the U.S. prison system, including state, local, and federal prisons, the study found that between 10 and 25 percent of prisoners suffer from major mental issues like schizophrenia.
However, this figure is a far cry from the 100 percent of the prison population which the BREATHE Act would set free.
Swan pressed Tlaib on this point, noting that the bill would release not only the mentally ill but also the fully sane. “The bill actually says ‘We’re gonna release everyone.’”
“In ten years,” Tlaib admitted, “but think about it, who are we releasing?”
“There are like human traffickers, child sex [offenders],” Swan began before Tlaib interjected “Oh, I know.”
“So do you mean that you actually don’t support that?” Swan asked.
“No, no I endorsed the BREATHE Act for looking at federal … policies and how we incarcerate, absolutely. But you cannot just blanketly [sic] say ‘Oh look, she wants [to release everyone].’ That’s not what I’m saying,” Tlaib insisted.
In fact, the Tlaib-endorsed bill calls for exactly that, a point that Swan insisted upon through the interview.
“What I’m saying,” Tlaib clarified, “is look at who’s in prison now. Look at the folks who are mentally ill, who have substance abuse problems.”
Swan expressed his agreement that people with these problems should be moved to facilities more suited to their needs.
“So why are you asking me about the criminals and the traffickers who should stay [in prison]?” Tlaib shot back.
“What I’m trying to understand is, your proposal is so sweeping. It does release everyone,” Swan explained.
“Oh, yeah,” Tlaib replied, adding that the releases will happen “within ten years,” and noting that “There’s a process of looking at how we can get away from mass incarceration and move towards care first.”
Tlaib claimed that a majority of U.S. prisoners have mental health issues. She also argued that the role of prison should be to rehabilitate people, which she said the current prison system does not do.
“Do you think all people can be rehabilitated?” Swan asked.
“I don’t think so,” Tlaib admitted, shaking her head. “I’ve been very clear about that,” she added.
However, she blamed American society for being unable to rehabilitate some of America’s worst criminals. “I don’t even know if our society would know how to be able to rehabilitate every single person,” Tlaib said.
Despite her protestations that she would not support blanket pardons for federal prisoners, Tlaib has not submitted an updated bill that would limit the pardons to those with serious mental health issues while keeping the worst criminals incarcerated.
Anti-Law and Order Sentiments Unpopular With Both Parties
The interview drew a comment from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who took to Twitter to blast Tlaib’s bill.
“Congresswoman Tlaib has a radical proposal that would be an American form of Bastille Day in France,” Graham said, in a reference to the beginning of the French Revolution which kicked off a decade of mob violence and state-sanctioned executions.
“Under her plan we would empty America’s federal prisons of all prisoners who may be adversely affected by COVID, regardless of the crime they committed or the threat they pose to society,” Graham wrote.
“Oddly enough, Congresswoman Tlaib has had a tough time convincing Congress to follow her lead on emptying prisons,” Graham continued. “However, the Taliban jumped all over this idea. When they took over Afghanistan first thing they did was empty all the prisons—including releasing terrorists.”
Tlaib, a progressive elected in 2018, is a part of “the squad,” a group including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.). The group of progressives have supported several anti-police and anti-judicial system initiatives.
But these progressive ideals are far from popular with many Democrats.
In the Senate, all 50 Democrats joined with all 50 Republicans in voting for an amendment to a bill that would increase federal funding for police.
Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the House Majority Whip and a prominent figure in the Black Caucus, has also rejected anti-police rhetoric, blaming the Defund the Police movement for lackluster House returns in the 2020 elections.
Given the wide bipartisan opposition to these measures, Tlaib’s bill is unlikely to get far, even in a Democratic Congress.