Updated: Jun 16
Criminal justice reform most commonly focuses on making the prison system less archaic, harsh and punitive. It does this through legislative amendments at all levels, ranging from policing and sentencing to mass incarceration and prison conditions. However, this is not the only approach to confronting issues within the system.
Prison abolition asserts that the system is so flawed it cannot be fixed by creating new legislation. In fact, the opposite is the case: in order to bring about true justice we need to decriminalize and decarcerate. As its name suggests, it includes abolishing the physical infrastructure of incarceration such as prisons, immigration detention centers and juvenile secure facilities.
It also addresses how the wider prison industrial complex (PIC) - the “overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems” - needs to be dismantled and replaced. It sees the PIC as symptomatic of deeply entrenched systemic racism and oppression by disproportionately targeting those from oppressed communities, criminalizing them and subjecting them to state violence and/or incarceration.
Solutions and alternatives
There is understandable fear and trepidation at the idea of abolishing prisons and secure facilities. The most common question abolition activists face is, what do we do with perpetrators of the worst crimes? There’s no one straightforward answer but there are two common threads in response.
Abolition is only a small element of the overall theory. The real emphasis is placed on creating the conditions that would reduce harm in society in the first place. As it stands, prison and incarceration are part of the problem, physical manifestations of the racism and oppression that leads to harm-inducing conditions: “Cages confine people, not the conditions that facilitated their harms or the mentalities that perpetuate violence.” By tackling these root causes and addressing poverty, inequality, access to education and work, mental health and addiction, abolition envisions a safer, healthier world for everyone.
But abolition activists acknowledge that this won’t entirely eliminate harm. Rather than a comprehensive solution, there are a number of alternative approaches to addressing harm and violence. Transformative justice “seeks to provide people who experience violence with immediate safety and long-term healing and reparations while holding people who commit violence accountable within and by their communities.” The term developed directly in relation to child sexual abuse, widely considered one of the most violent and heinous forms of harm in society. The model can be adapted to address all types of violence, pivoting away from punishment and vengeance towards healing, support and prevention.
Where do reform and abolition differ and overlap?
In order to understand where reform and abolition differ and where they overlap, it’s helpful to consider reforms as either positive or negative.
Positive reforms are defined as those which attempt to address a problem within the PIC by expanding an element of the system. For example, a positive response to tackling prison overcrowding would be building more prisons to create more space. Positive reforms also refer to improvements in the conditions of prison life, like increasing and developing education and skills-based learning.
There are two key critiques of positive reforms. Most amendments that fall into this category reinforce and bolster the state’s power to incarcerate; building new prisons ends up providing more cells for more people to be incarcerated. Likewise, improving prison conditions simply changes the shape of the PIC without dismantling it. In fact, critics of positive reforms believe that these kinds of initiatives end up exacerbating the problem in the long term by allowing the state and the general public to justify prisons as a ‘good thing’, or at the very least, less bad than they were. This whitewashes the deeper and more ingrained problems, covering them with layers of flimsy legislation without dealing with them at their root. Think of it like putting a band aid on a bullet wound and hoping that will make it better — it doesn’t stop the bleeding and, left untreated, the wound will worsen.
Positive reforms also cover alternatives to incarceration or parts of the carceral experience. The problem with these types of reform is that, “everything that is introduced as an alternative to incarceration usually becomes a supplement to incarceration”, as Naomi Murakawa, associate professor of African American studies at Princeton University, explains. She offers parole as a prime example. The idea of parole is to provide those leaving prison with a mentor figure to assist with post-prison life. In practice, the rules that accompany parole are so restrictive that people often end up being returned to prison for violating them. The same can be applied to similar mechanisms like probation, ankle monitors and house arrest, which allow people to leave the physical prison but in reality continue to bind the individual to state supervision and control.
Negative reforms, or non-reformative reforms, are more akin to abolition thinking. These involve measures that remove crucial elements on which the current system depends. In particular, they seek to lower the number of people being sent to prison in the first place and/or reduce the number of people currently incarcerated. Further, negative reforms draw attention to and tackle society’s reliance on the PIC to deal with socio-economic and health issues.
The decriminalization of marijuana is a good example. The war on drugs that began in earnest in the 70s and continues to this day predominantly targets poor people of color and has led to a wildly disproportionate number of people from oppressed communities being locked up. Decriminalizing marijuana entirely does two things: first, it prevents people of color being criminalized and, if applied retroactively, leads to thousands of people being released from prison. It’s a win/win.
Other areas of the criminal justice system aside from prison that are the focus of reform measures include the police, the courts and sentencing. There are positive and negative reform approaches to these that highlight the type of change that could be implemented.
Police: an example of positive reform would be to provide training to police officers about domestic violence so they can offer more support when called to a home. A negative reform or abolition position would hold that the police should not be the first response in situations of domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is a complex psychological as well as physical trauma and trained social workers and therapists are better equipped to support those experiencing it. There is also the more specific concern over the possibility that the police may arrest the person experiencing harm, which deepens that harm and perpetuates violence.
Sentencing reform: mandatory minimums are legally imposed sentences for certain crimes that give a judge no discretion to decide on an appropriate response. Reforming mandatory minimums could be either positive or negative depending on the alternative presented. A positive reform might try to reduce the mandatory minimum; a negative reform would be to remove it altogether.
Courts: in many states juvenile cases can be moved to adult courts at a judge’s discretion. This is usually for offences deemed extremely violent, like murder, but it can also apply for any crime to those within the 16–18 age bracket. A positive reform might be to increase the minimum age for an adult trial to seventeen, but a negative reform would state that no juvenile should ever be tried in an adult court. The age limit could also be pushed much higher so that a juvenile is someone aged 25 and under, for example. A pure abolition approach would stipulate that children aren’t arrested, tried or sentenced at all.
Challenges for the abolition vision
Criminal justice reform has become a widely accepted and acceptable means of tackling the injustices of the system, but it fails to address the root problems of systemic racism and oppression that are harder to dismantle. This allows legislators, politicians and the general public to continue pushing a reformist agenda without having to change anything that would jeopardize their social or political standing: “If politicians acknowledged that most criminalized harms are rooted in social and economic inequities, they would be expected to address those inequities, which most refuse to do. In the United States, the political careers of elected officials are largely funded by those who directly benefit from the inequities of our society.”
Abolition sounds and seems radical partly in its name, but the term ‘radical’ is open to interpretation. Abolition challenges the status quo, which is itself radically problematic. In exchange, it proposes radically positive alternatives. By flipping the term on its head and understanding the status quo as something to be disputed, resisted and rejected, this type of change is not only deemed necessary but would be viewed as highly desirable.
Is it possible to campaign for both?
Achieving abolition in its entirety may feel a long way off. However, the problems caused and perpetuated by the PIC in America are only deepening every day. For those who care about addressing this, time is of the essence. As James Baldwin so perfectly puts it: “You always told me it takes time. It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brothers’ and my sisters’ time, my nieces’ and my nephews’ time. How much time do you want for your progress?” There are many different types of campaign and actions focused on negative reforms.
Campaigns to release individuals like Chelsea Manning and the Exonerated Five (previously called the Central Park Five) not only help to free individuals from the physical confines of the PIC but also highlight the injustices of these individuals’ cases and the more widespread injustice that is endemic to the system as a whole. This allows campaigners to set wider precedents for acceptable treatment of those accused of doing harm.
There are also community funded and supported bail initiatives, like the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, which seek to pay bail for those who can’t. By its very existence the scheme highlights the unfairness and flaws of the bail system and centers the presumption of innocence that is so often absent, especially in situations involving those from oppressed communities. It also actively ensures individuals avoid being sent to jail.
Initiatives like Ban the Box, which seeks to remove the criminal record check from job applications, are also important ways to speak to both the individual issue and the wider implications of how criminal records perpetuate social, economic and racial segregation.
Abolition movement Critical Resistance lists wins and achievements on their website which highlight the range of campaigns, shows of solidarity and actions that all further the abolition vision and are examples of the reform/abolition crossover.
This post offers an introduction to criminal justice reform and prison abolition. Both are entire academic and activist fields on their own with powerful and brilliant thinkers having written and spoken about each. It’s helpful to understand the basics of how they oppose and interact with each other in order to make informed decisions on which fights to fight. Further reading can be found in the list below.
Written by Forgive Everyone Contributor, Molly Lipson
Molly is a writer and an activist for justice and prison abolition from the UK with a background in American studies. She also works on the climate crisis from a perspective of systemic racism and oppression.
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 From the documentary James Baldwin: The Price of a Ticket
What Abolitionists Do – Dan Berger, Mariama Kaba, David Stein
The Worrying State of the Anti-Prison Movement - Ruth Wilson Gilmore
What is the PIC? What is Abolition? – Critical Resistance
Our Approach, Our Analysis - Esteban Kelly
Organizing to Abolish the Prison-Industrial Complex – Hans Bennett
You are Already an Abolitionist – Benji Hart
The Limits of Criminal Justice Reform – Joseph Margulies
Some Reflections on Prison Abolition – Micah Herskind