News & Commentary

A No-Frills Analysis of The BREATHE Act

April 1, 2021

Analysis by Holly Potter
Plumsted Township Resident, Plumsted for Progress Volunteer


On July 7th, 2020, the Movement for Black Lives Electoral Justice Project unveiled The BREATHE Act. The federal proposal was released during a summer of consistent Black Lives Matter protests, with its sights set on divesting in policing and investing in community-oriented safety solutions. Also included are measures to uplift Black communities disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs, new legislation to end the humanitarian crisis at the border, and restorative justice programs for formerly incarcerated individuals. The BREATHE Act is a hefty bill, but it is broken into four sections each focusing on a different reparative measure.

The first section of The BREATHE Act deals with America’s rampant over-policing, mass incarceration, and criminalization of people of color. The bill seeks to ban the use of “less than lethal” weapons as a means of crowd control. This would mean the end of tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper balls, which have been shown to cause permanent and even lethal damage to protesters and bystanders. It also prohibits the use of chemical restraints- tranquilizers such as ketamine. Tackling the issue of drug enforcement is also part of The BREATHE Act’s agenda. Under the act, penalties for possession of drugs, intent to distribute drugs, and possession of certain drug-related paraphernalia would be repealed and past offenses expunged from an individual’s criminal record. Where other bills like The Justice in Policing Act seek to reform, The BREATHE Act seeks to abolish. Private prisons would be abolished, solitary confinement would be banned, and border detention facilities would be closed. State and local law enforcement would also be prohibited to coordinate with immigration enforcement. Those released from prison would be pulled from the incarceration/re-incarceration cycle through access to Pell grants, housing vouchers, and employment.


Further, the second section of The BREATHE Act takes the funding available from prisons and police to invest in community-based organizations and programs. Community organizations would be given portions of this funding to provide non-punitive, non-carceral alternative programs such as after-school enrichment, educational development, unarmed first responder units, and transportation assistance. States would be incentivized to close prisons through grants that could be used to fund mental health services and non-carceral alternatives. Police departments would be demilitarized and the military-grade equipment collected and destroyed. Though section two is one of the shorter sections, it provides a direct, alternative outlet for police funding.


In section three, The BREATHE Act outlines the allocation of new money to continue building safer communities. The section begins with a plan to end the school-to-prison pipeline and decriminalize Black youth. Instead of funding for punitive programs, The BREATHE Act proposes funding for free WiFi programs for students and families, free transportation, free school meals, and improved school infrastructure. The act also calls for federally funded childcare to allow parents to work and kids to have a full day of school. Additionally, the federal proposal asserts the need for a curriculum that focuses on the lasting effects of white supremacy and American colonialism in place of a curriculum that teaches those concepts as pure history. As for building the community outside of schools, The BREATHE Act seeks to provide tangible resources in the form of a starter kit for expecting parents- what’s known in other countries as “baby boxes.” It would provide 18 months of paid family and medical leave for all workers, establish a Universal Basic Income (UBI) for low-income workers, and allocate federal funds to housing investments in communities of color. In addition, section three underscores the need for health-equity-focused policy changes that meet the needs of the LGBTQIA+ community, Tribal communities, poor communities, and other communities typically left out of the mainstream healthcare conversation. It also ensures that 40% of federal climate-related spending funds environmental justice programs for those most affected by climate change-marginalized communities.


Finally, section four of The BREATHE Act makes much-needed provisions to hold our current systems and officials accountable for past harms and foster self-determination within Black communities. Foremost, section four establishes a reparations program for communities harmed by the War on Drugs, slavery and segregation, police violence, and immigration enforcement. It also takes a stand against racist voting laws and practices by creating a uniform voting standard for all states, banning voter roll purges, and restoring the right to vote for formerly incarcerated people. For Indigenous people, The BREATHE Act seeks to require full, informed consent from any Tribal Nation that would be affected by a federal decision before the decision is made. It also establishes a grant program for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women for safe housing, counseling, and community-led research and investigation into missing person cases. Lastly, a federally mandated annual report on police misconduct would be created and maintained, problematic police departments would be dissolved, and qualified immunity would be cut off in its entirety.


The BREATHE Act is a nuanced bill, and the outline above still does not cover every provision within the act. This analysis is only a starting point for those who are looking to learn about The BREATHE Act’s proposals. The Movement for Black Lives has created four documents that break down the bill further, which can be accessed at www.breatheact.org. The full text of the federal proposal is also available. All information on The BREATHE Act in this article was sourced from the website, and readers are encouraged to visit the link to explore the act further and for information on how to support the act.


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