Reform vs Abolition: An Introduction

Updated: Jun 16, 2020

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[1]” - 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.[2]” 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.[3]” 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[4]”, 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