Sparked by tragedy, Congresswoman seeks justice reform

Editor’s Note — This is the second in a series by CNN’s Jared Waldman that follows congressional leaders and provides a look at their efforts to bring real change to Washington. (CNN) — This…

Sparked by tragedy, Congresswoman seeks justice reform

Editor’s Note — This is the second in a series by CNN’s Jared Waldman that follows congressional leaders and provides a look at their efforts to bring real change to Washington.

(CNN) — This week, Congress becomes the first legislative body to vote on a bill to raise the country’s debt ceiling and avert a possible government shutdown.

In the next couple of weeks, lawmakers will likely debate and vote on criminal justice reform, gun control, President Donald Trump’s budget, immigration reform and federal funding bills.

Perhaps no figure wields power on Capitol Hill like Pramila Jayapal, a freshman congresswoman from Washington who has fought tirelessly for the past five years to bring needed changes to the country’s criminal justice system.

Jayapal — who’s running for Democratic leader in the House — is on the campaign trail again, telling constituents she will fight to create a “just society” by ending mass incarceration, reining in gun violence and ensuring fair wages for workers.

‘Tough on crime’

Jayapal said she was spurred to run for office after hearing from constituents suffering from “the suffering of our criminal justice system and the inability of our criminal justice system to make us safer.”

In response, Jayapal created a congressional subcommittee, the legislative arm of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

“Over the last 5 years, working with other progressive Democrats in Congress, the Congressional Progressive Caucus has been able to pass legislation to bring some much-needed reform and overhaul to our criminal justice system,” Jayapal told CNN.

“That is part of the reason I have gone to so many, many town halls across the country and kept talking to so many people. It’s all about making people feel like that community is being heard.”

That means fighting for policies that will keep our community safe while keeping the system just.

After talking with people who are “heartbroken” about the effects of mass incarceration, “I would say most Americans are unaware of the harm that is being inflicted on young men and women of color,” she said.

“The way we have framed our system of justice has led to young people of color being over-incarcerated and that is one of the reasons that we have a rise in young black and brown men who commit suicide.”

A ‘no-compromise’ approach

Jayapal has a reputation for being a “no-compromise” figure in Congress.

After Donald Trump was elected president last year, she traveled to Lima, Peru, and addressed the United Nations Security Council in a hearing on migration.

“If you look at my ability to get things done, it’s very unusual, in that as one of the newer members of Congress, in that I keep pushing and pushing until we finally get something done,” she said.

“It’s either going to be with a president or Republican or Democrat but it has to be done. And that’s actually become a very rare thing, that we are able to get things done with different leaders.”

Beyond her work with the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Jayapal has worked with grassroots organizations — including the Vera Institute for Justice, the Public Interest Law Center, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) to push for prison reform.

In 2014, Jayapal led a filibuster in the Senate against sentencing laws that disproportionately impacted communities of color. She led the drive to pass the FIRST STEP Act, legislation that aims to help the re-entry process for former prisoners.

“I’m proud of the work that we have done, but I always say that no one political party gets things done. What we need to do is find some common ground and find some folks who we can come together and work together,” she said.

“It has to be something that unites us. I think that is really the only way we can get anything done and that’s one of the reasons why people are voting for Democrats because they are the ones who bring folks together.”

When asked if she can do the same thing in the U.S. House of Representatives, Jayapal simply responds, “Go figure.”

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