One issue on which Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton all agree is that America’s prison system needs to be reformed.
Where the disagreement comes in is how it needs to be reformed.
President Trump met last week with state leaders to talk about prison reform amid calls from the far left to abolish the entire system.
Those calling to abandon the prison system, AKA “abolitionists,” are the same people calling to abolish ICE, do away with the death penalty, and decriminalize drug use.
“Proponents envision a future society in which, rather than having better carceral conditions than we have today, there exist literally no prisons at all,” notes Politico. They say we should not use punishment as a way to address harm.
Abolitionists argue that America’s criminal justice system is inherently cruel and racist, and that abolishing the entire system is the “only truly humane direction we can head in as a society – that is, if we really aspire to live in a world rid of interpersonal harm and racial inequality,” continues Politico.
Abolitionists also like to point out that incarceration doesn’t seem to prevent recidivism (which makes me feel like prison sentences should be longer, not shorter).
According to author Maya Schenwar, abolition is “the acceptance of an understanding that prison does not work to any good ends.”
In her book Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better, Schenwar argues that the current system upholds white supremacy, capitalism, and oppression, but does not keep us safe or protect society in a productive way.
Regarding the entire prison system, Schenwar writes, “Once we understand that basically its roots are rotten, then we understand that we can’t just replace certain aspects of it or improve it or make prison kinder and gentler; we actually have to uproot it.”
The abolitionist movement began in the late 20th century with a group of black feminists who saw the current prison system as a continuation of slavery.
“There is overwhelming evidence that mass incarceration evolved as an outgrowth of Jim Crow laws, which itself was a system rooted in the subjugation of former slaves,” argues rookie politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “According to legal scholar Michelle Alexander, there are more African-Americans under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850…before the Civil War.”
There are currently more than 2.2 million people locked up in America’s prisons.
The purported connection between prisons and slavery kind of makes sense in light of two facts:
- Incarceration rates disproportionately impact people of color
- Inmates are commonly used for menial tasks and hard labor
But is the solution to the problem really to let criminals run free?
According to abolitionists, the two biggest obstacles in gaining support for the movement are:
- The widespread idea that we need prisons to keep us safe
- The mentality that we should hurt people who hurt others
“It’s really, really hard for people to imagine a world without prisons, but we had that world before,” argues podcaster Kim Wilson. “The system that we currently have is supposed to be more humane than if we just tortured someone, but we’re just torturing people in a different way.” To prevent crime, explains Wilson, our goal should not be to lock up as many criminals as we can. Instead, we should figure out “what conditions exist in people’s interpersonal relationships, in their homes, in their communities, that lead someone to commit harm.”
Abolitionists’ key complaint about retributive justice is that it dehumanizes people who break the law. Instead, they insist we should implement policies that treat people like people and not like animals.
Recent polls suggest that up to 60% of Americans see rehabilitation as more appropriate than prison for nonviolent offenses. Abolitionists want to take that sentiment one step further to include violent offenders.
Abolitionist Carlton Williams insists we should treat criminals with “mutual support and love” instead of locking them in cages. But as Williams admits, “it’s hard to tell someone who experienced sexual violence that their rapist shouldn’t be punished.”
Editor’s note: I’m very afraid of the naivete of these people.