Revealed: Congressional Black Caucus send letter demanding relaxed criminal justice system for next coronavirus bill

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Exclusive: Black Caucus letter to Pelosi and Schumer calls for the early release of more non-violent criminals, an $82bn broadband package, and other progressive initiatives

World | The Independent

A new letter from the Congressional Black Caucus to Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill this week outlines an aggressive list of priorities to help minority families, business owners, and prison inmates weather the economic and health impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

The letter, obtained by The Independent and dated 29 April and addressed to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, advocates for the early release of many non-violent criminals in overcrowded prison systems that are potential hotbeds for Covid-19, an $82bn package to bring broadband internet access to millions more Americans in poor parts of the country, and dozens of other policies that would address the health and economic concerns of communities of colour.

"The Members of the Congressional Black Caucus appreciate your efforts to include many of our policy priorities in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act," Chairwoman Karen Bass wrote in the letter to Ms Pelosi and Mr Schumer, referring to a $2.2trn economic stimulus package Congress passed in March.

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"However, there is still much more needed to strengthen our communities and ease the impact of the pandemic thus far," Ms Bass wrote.

The CBC's letter aligns closely with the list of priorities espoused by the Congressional Progressive Caucus: $4bn for election security and to expand mail-in voting in all 50 states, the cancellation of student loan debt, an increase to the child tax credit, and a moratorium on the shutdown of utilities for people who cannot pay their bills, to name just a handful.

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But it also outlines more parochial interests for members of colour, such as an additional $1.9bn in emergency funding to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and so-called "minority serving institutions," which received just $1.1bn of a requested $3bn in the CARES Act.

Among the proposals the CBC is pushing for now, according to the letter this week, is a measure to ensure cannabis businesses are eligible for the same emergency federal funds as other small businesses. The CARES Act prohibits businesses that are illegal at the national level from receiving money through federal programmes such as the Small Business Associations's Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) or the Treasury Department's paycheck protection programme (PPP).

Criminal justice

The CBC is also pushing for a large-scale relaxation of the criminal justice system.

The letter from Wednesday calls for the release of more prisoners through "clemency, commutations, and compassionate release."

Prison officials should grant immediate temporary release to home confinement to "individuals who are a low-risk threat to the community, but to whom Covid-19 is a high-risk threat," the letter states. That group of inmates eligible for release should automatically include pregnant women, adults over the age of 55, and people with severe preexisting medical conditions, but "could extend to those who are near to completing their sentence, low-risk offenders, and those who have not begun their sentence," according to letter.

All detained juveniles who have not committed a violent crime should also be released, the CBC wrote.

The CBC is also urging law enforcement not to arrest people who steal "supplies or resources needed to survive the Covid-19 pandemic" or break emergency quarantine protocols such as stay-at-home orders.

"Instead, citations or desk tickets should be issued in place of arrest so that people can return home, balancing the need for arrest with the overwhelming public safety concerns presented by the coronavirus," the letter states. "This action will help prevent increasing the incarcerated population, especially during the pandemic."

CBC's influence

Ms Pelosi has relied heavily on input from the CBC in recent weeks as she has negotiated legislation with Republicans and the Trump administration in Washington. The speaker has praised CBC members as instrumental in highlighting the need to expand access to government emergency lending programmes for small businesses in poor and "underbanked" parts of the country. A $484bn interim relief bill passed last week included a special set-aside of roughly $60bn for such businesses.

The CBC is also throwing its weight behind House Democrats' $80bn proposal unveiled on Thursday to expand broadband internet to urban and rural parts of the country that lack web connection.

Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, a longtime CBC member, told reporters on Thursday that the lack of internet access has acutely interfered with majority-black communities' access to online education and health services during the coronavirus crisis.

Parents get off work, "load their children into automobiles," and take them down to the parking lots of a local libraries and fast food restaurants so they can do their homework, Mr Clyburn said.

The CBC has been handsomely rewarded for its contributions to the coronavirus negotiating process: Ms Pelosi has tapped Mr Clyburn to chair the newly formed House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis, which will oversee the administration's rollout of trillions of dollars of federal money to deal with the health crisis.

House Financial Services Chairwoman and CBC member Maxine Waters will also sit on the 12-member panel for the Democrats.

  • Revealed: Congressional Black Caucus send letter demanding relaxed criminal justice system for next coronavirus bill photo


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