What Does Criminal Justice Reform Actually Look Like? Let Shervin Aazami Explain

Updated: Aug 29, 2021

Loads of Democratic candidates-- especially non-incumbents-- are running on platforms that include a criminal justice reform plank. But so far I haven't found anyone more dedicated than Shervin Aazami, a progressive running in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley. The incumbent is a do-nothing corporate Democrat, Brad Sherman, and Aazami is running a strong model grassroots campaign for the seat.

Aazami explained that though, Black and Latinx Americans accounted for 28% of the U.S. population in 2016, they were fully 56% of our incarcerated population. "Here in Los Angeles," he wrote, "Black Angelenos represent 8% of our population; yet 30% of incarcerated men are Black, and 32% of incarcerated women are Black. Latinx and Black men collectively account for a whopping 80% of those incarcerated in men’s facilities. The militarization of local police has been matched by divestment in housing, education, healthcare, and economic development in low-income communities of color. In 1992, state and local spending on police was $132 per capita; in 2017, it was $352 per capita. The United States spends over $100 billion annually on police, and $740 billion on the military. We divested from healing, and invested in punishment. We replaced slavery with Jim Crow, and Jim Crow with mass incarceration and prison labor. This practice must end, and it starts with Congress. It starts with defunding our military-industrial complex and putting money into living wages, education, public transportation, mental health, and harm reduction. Mass incarceration is an intersectional crisis-- as articulated by scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw-- because of how the policies and structure of our criminal in-justice system perpetuate poverty, violence, neglect, and lower health outcomes in Black and Brown communities. For decades, activists and researchers have spoken out about the impacts of mass incarceration on Black and Brown economic mobility, housing, educational attainment, political representation, family and community stability, mental health, and physical health. Yet public health leaders have largely ignored the public health impacts of mass incarceration. I sought to bring attention to that by focusing my thesis for my Master of Public Health on defining the far-reaching public health consequences of mass incarceration-- on everything from wealth accumulation to HIV rates to behavioral health outcomes for children of incarcerated people."

"We are," he wrote, "long past due for our laws and policies on criminal justice and public safety to be grounded in public health, not incarceration. At its core, our criminal justice platform seeks to legislate on the major principles and solutions put forth in the transformative BREATHE Act created by the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). That is why our platform calls to:

Abolish and permanently outlaw private and public for-profit prisons and detention centers.

  • There are few greater perversions of justice than the monetization of carceral punishment. Private prisons and detention centers reap billions from detaining and shackling thousands of Black Americans and undocumented immigrants-- many of whom are asylum seekers fleeing persecution-- simply in the name of endless profit.

Fully repeal the disastrous “1033” and “1122” programs that precipitated the militarization of local police.

  • Under the Clinton Administration, Congress permanently authorized the “1033 program,” dubbed after Section 1033 of the National Defense Authorization Act of 1997. The program authorizes the Department of Defense to transfer unused military-grade equipment to local police - including assault rifles, mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs), grenade launchers, combat knives, weaponized drones, helicopters, and even bayonets. Billions worth of these equipment have been transferred to local police over the past few decades.

  • The program includes perverse incentives, including a requirement that police use the equipment in order to remain eligible to continue receiving it.

  • The development of police SWAT teams and military-style invasions of Black and Brown neighborhoods is directly correlated with the 1033 program. Defunding the police must include turning off the spigot of federal support.

Abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

  • Congress established ICE under the Homeland Security Act of 2002 in the wake of the anti-immigrant hysteria resulting from the September 11 terrorist attacks.

  • ICE is the embodiment of our militarized border and anti-humanitarian immigration policies. The horror inflicted by this agency on thousands of Latinx, Muslim, and other immigrant communities is purely reprehensible.

  • Our government has tortured, abused, raped, and forcibly sterilized immigrant women and children. No words can sufficiently articulate the enormity of these crimes against humanity. There is simply no place for an agency like ICE under a fair, just, and human-centric immigration system.

  • Congress must also break up and defund Customs and Border Protection (CBP) by returning jurisdiction of customs authority to the Treasury Department and naturalization and citizenship authority to the State Department.

Reparations for Black Americans

  • The United States has never fully committed to understanding and addressing the institutional harm and despair resulting from centuries of slavery. After a mere 12 years of Reconstruction post-Civil War, the United States then launched a policy of violence, oppression, discrimination, and militarism through Jim Crow and now through mass incarceration. Healing requires accountability, first.

  • Introduced by Rep. Jackson Lee, H.R. 40 would establish a Commission to study the generational impacts of slavery on society and the lives of Black Americans starting from 1619 to the present. The Commission would be charged with developing comprehensive proposals to provide reparations to Black Americans.

Legalize cannabis and pass the MORE Act

  • Enacting the MORE Act-- which legalizes cannabis-- is essential towards ending the disastrous War on Drugs and healing decades of state-sponsored racism under mass incarceration.

  • The MORE Act not only removes cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, it would retroactively expunge all cannabis-related arrests, charges, and convictions that have disproportionately harmed Black and brown communities. It would also funnel money into cannabis medical research, and impose a 5% retail tax on cannabis sales.

Decriminalize consensual sex work and repeal SESTA/FOSTA

  • Sex workers-- particularly BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and undocumented sex workers-- face significant discrimination, violence, and police brutality. Criminalizing sex work does not keep our communities safer, nor does it protect sex workers. Criminalization has also denied sex workers from accessing banking and credit services, which perpetuates the cycle of poverty impacting many workers in the sex industry.

  • Passed in 2018, SESTA/FOSTA are two federal laws that were established ostensibly to reduce human trafficking, but in practice have led to more abuse and violence against sex workers and denied their access to essential health, safety, and social services. While I support the intent of the SAFE SEX Workers Study Act from Rep. Khanna and Senator Warren, I believe we must go much further to protect the civil rights of our sex worker community.

  • We need full decriminalization of consensual sex work - for both sex workers and clients. This must include retroactive expungement of prior criminal records. These protections must also be extended to undocumented immigrants.

  • We must also repeal discriminatory laws that criminalize people living with HIV with increased penalties if convicted of prostitution or solicitation.

Abolish the “Punishment Clause” of the 13th Amendment.

  • Section 1 of the 13th Amendment outlaws slavery and involuntary servitude, “...except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” This heinous loophole has permitted prisons and corporations to extract forced labor from incarcerated individuals without any workers protections or living wages.

  • Here in California, the highest payment per hour to incarcerated individuals is 37 cents for jobs outside of the prison industry. Thousands of individuals in California’s prisons are drafted into fighting the state’s raging wildfires, and up until 2020, the state had even banned those same incarcerated individuals from getting jobs as firefighters after release. In short - cruelty is the point of our prison system. That must end now.

  • The United States has the audacity to rebuke forced labor in other nations, while we’ve been engaging in the same exploitative, immoral, and inexcusable practice at home.

Abolish and outlaw cash bail, pretrial detention, and civil asset forfeiture.

  • Only two countries have commercialized bail systems - the United States and the Philippines. Cash bail criminalizes poverty, and disproportionately harms Black and Brown communities, immigrants, and sex workers. According to M4BL, judges set cash bail - for the same crimes - on average $7,281 higher for Blacks than for Whites. For undocumented migrants, bails costs can reach as high as ten grand.

  • Nearly two-thirds of Americans don’t have the savings to cover a $500 emergency - meaning cash bail can literally bankrupt families. It is unjust, and it is cruel.

  • The immense cost burden of posting bail forces over 460,000 people per night - roughly 75% of those held overnight in jails - to be held pretrial without a conviction. Many of the “reasons” judges give to justify these pretrial detentions are grounded in anti-black, Islamaphobic, and transphobic rhetoric.

  • Civil asset forfeiture is also one of the most perverse examples of the monetization of punishment. The practice has allowed state, local, and federal police to outright steal $68 billion worth of assets from people who haven’t even been charged with a crime - including their homes, cars, and even cash - over the past two decades simply on “suspicion” of criminal activity.

  • It is a direct violation of due process, exacerbates poverty in Black and Brown communities, and is ethically bankrupt. Police have weaponized civil asset forfeiture to create slush funds for their departments at the direct expense of working-class people.

Abolish “three-strikes” laws, “truth-in-sentencing” laws, mandatory minimum sentences, life without parole, and the federal death penalty. Raise the minimum age of criminal liability to 24, and abolish all perverse “sentencing enhancements.”

  • Established under the disastrous 1994 crime laws, terrible policies such as “three-strikes” have led to Black and Brown individuals facing lifetime sentences for petty drug possession, while “truth-in-sentencing” laws require that individuals complete the majority of their sentences before qualifying for early release. Mandatory minimum sentencing for drug-related crimes in particular have proliferated the incarceration of Black people, as for decades the mandatory minimum sentence for crack cocaine was ten times higher than powdered cocaine.

  • We also must abolish the death penalty. There is no justice or morality in this heinous system that is grounded in institutional racism. Over 40% of individuals on death row are Black. Too many innocent individuals and individuals with mental illness have been sentenced to death. When an alarming 1 in 9 people executed on death row are later exonerated, it speaks to the immense sentencing errors in our criminal in-justice system.

  • One in seven incarcerated people have a life sentence without the possibility of parole (LWOP) - the vast majority of whom were sentenced before the age of 24. We’ve witnessed a nearly 4-fold increase in LWOP in recent years, with a whopping 97,000 people serving LWOP or “virtual life” sentences of 50 years or more. LWOP sentences impose astronomical economic and human costs, and do not keep our communities safer. Any real push for abolition must include a permanent end to LWOP.

Invest in transformative justice by providing $1.5 billion annually in block grants to state, Tribal, territorial, and local governments and nonprofits for a new comprehensive federal harm reduction initiative and eliminate all legal barriers to implementation.

  • Put simply, harm reduction is the philosophy of practical strategies to reduce the adverse effects of drug use for individuals, families, and communities. For decades, cultural stigma and discrimination against drug users fueled by the economically and socially destructive, morally corrosive, and inherently racist War on Drugs, has stifled the availability of harm reduction programs.

  • While some harm reduction principles like use of the opioid overdose reversal drug Naloxone and Good Samaritan laws have grown in prominence, they continue to operate on the sidelines of public health. Even more troublesome is that more transformative programs like syringe exchange, supervised drug consumption sites, widespread use of drug checking (e.g. fentanyl testing strips) continue to face significant legal and social barriers despite their demonstrated value in reducing drug-related harms, deaths, and also consumption rates.

  • It is long past due for harm reduction to become a staple of public health practice. We can achieve that goal by removing legal barriers towards establishment of supervised consumption sites, and providing meaningful funding for harm reduction programming.

Abolish and outlaw the use of DNA testing and facial recognition technology by immigration and border enforcement officials, and federal, state, and local police departments.

  • New technologies like facial recognition have been weaponized by immigration agents and police departments to racially profile, harass, and erode the privacy and dignity of Black and Latinx individuals and communities. In recent years, police have also used these technologies to track and arrest activists and protesters in a morally repugnant infringement of free speech and assembly rights.

  • These technologies are a pernicious stain on individual freedoms and must not be used by any government agency or official any longer.

Establish and fully fund a new $1 billion annual federal housing program for the formerly incarcerated and eliminate all eligibility barriers for federal housing assistance.

  • Formerly incarcerated individuals are disproportionately impacted by houselessness, and ensuring access to permanent housing is one of the strongest tools against recidivism. We must establish and fully fund a new federal housing program to construct green, energy-efficient housing units for formerly incarcerated individuals.

Abolish qualified immunity and guarantee private right of action.

  • Qualified immunity protects cops from accountability for their actions and thus incentivizes heinous acts of misconduct, while also stripping constitutional rights from Black and Brown citizens demanding justice. We must abolish these perverse protections and ensure citizens have the guaranteed right to seek damages.

Establish a new office within the Department of Health and Human Services devoted to addressing the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), and provide $2 billion annually into research, prevention, response, and restorative justice.

  • While passage of recent bipartisan laws like Savanna’s Act and Not Invisible Act will help to improve data collection on the shameful inaccuracies and incompleteness of available data on MMIW, there is so much more that needs to be done.

Provide a full Oliphant fix to help restore inherent Tribal sovereignty.

  • Since 1978, sovereign Tribal Nations have been denied criminal jurisdiction over non-Natives when a crime is committed on Tribal lands and reservations, even when a crime is committed against a Tribal citizen.

  • This policy is grounded in anti-Indigeneity and white supremacy, especially since the overwhelming majority of individuals who commit crimes on Tribal lands are white males.

Require the prior, informed consent of Tribal Nations before the federal government is authorized to make any changes to Tribal lands and resources, and federal policies and programs that impact Tribal governments.

  • In order to fulfill our treaty and trust obligations to Tribal Nations, we must establish a government to government relationship that is truly grounded in, and respectful of, inherent Tribal sovereignty.

Abolish prison gerrymandering.

  • Prison gerrymandering is the process by which the federal Census Bureau, state, and local governments count incarcerated individuals as residents of the location where they are incarcerated, as opposed to their home communities. With prison populations disproportionately Black, Latinx, and Indigenous, this practice has effectively allowed rural, predominately republican districts-- where most prisons are located-- to artificially inflate their population numbers, even though incarcerated individuals lack the right to vote.

  • While several states, including California, have enacted statewide bans on prison gerrymandering, this heinous practice still continues undeterred in the majority of states nationwide.

Fully restore the right to vote for all current and formerly incarcerated individuals.

  • Incarceration has been weaponized to disenfranchise Black and Brown communities for decades. There is no room in a fair and just democracy to strip ANY citizen of their inalienable right to participate in our elections.

Pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act.

  • There is no greater way of honoring the late Representative John Lewis’s legacy than ensuring the right to vote for all. This law would restore all of the protections established under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, retroactively addresses discriminatory state voter suppression laws (like ID requirements), and increases the accessibility of voting within Indigenous communities.

Establish new federal public health grant programs throughout the Department of Health and Human Services for state and local governments and community-based organizations to:

  • Establish non-carceral crisis intervention programs, especially during instances where an individual may be experiencing mental illness;

  • Provide trauma-informed health services for formerly incarcerated individuals and their families;

  • Establish restorative and transformative justice programs in their communities;

  • Engage in closures of jails, prisons, and detention centers and demilitarize police;

  • Develop school-based violence intervention programs grounded in art, music, and theater;

  • Expand access to community-based and patient-centric mental health and substance use disorder prevention and treatment programs.

If elected, Shervin will be one of the best members of Congress; I can guarantee it-- and not just because of his stand on criminal and racial justice. As you should be able to see from he he put into that plank, he is thorough and thoughtful and burning with Justice. This isn't even about his pathetic opponent who no longer stands for anything or cares for anything other than his own career. This is about getting another member of Congress with a sense of compassion and passion like the dozen or so we already have-- like Cori Bush, Mondaire Jones, Jamaal Bowman, AOC, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Pramila Jayapal, Ted Lieu, Katie Porter, Marie Newman, Nikema Williams, Jamie Raskin, Jim McGovern... So, how about chipping in $10 or whatever you feel comfortable with, to Shervin Aazami's campaign at the 2022 California thermometer above; the thermometer image is a hot link, so just click it.

And if you missed the video by Jim Lough up top... it's a debut and here it is again. Enjoy: