While politicians in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere debate prison reforms, a group of abolitionists — young, mostly black lawyers, academics, artists, authors and community organizers — believe that the criminal justice system as we know it is inherently cruel, perpetuates systemic racism, and must be overhauled completely.
For some leftist activists, proposals to reform prisons are not enough and, in some cases, may even be counterproductive. For these activists, the word “abolish” that has been trending lately with reference to immigration enforcement and the death penalty is a nod to a more ambitious movement that has been building for decades. Proponents envision a future society in which, rather than having better carceral conditions than we have today, there are no prisons at all, Politico reports. At first blush, the idea might seem fringe and unreasonable; where would all the criminals go? What happens to rapists and murderers? The movement’s backers counter that it is the only truly humane direction we can head in as a society.
The “abolitionists” are young, mostly black lawyers, academics, artists, authors and community organizers. They believe that the criminal justice system as we know it is inherently cruel, perpetuates systemic racism, and must be overhauled completely. “It’s not necessarily about tearing down the prison walls tomorrow,” says Maya Schenwar, who wrote “Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better.” Schenwar argues that, “abolition is the acceptance of an understanding that prison does not work to any good ends.” Many involved in this modern-day abolition movement, says Georgetown law Prof. Allegra McLeod, see their work as a continuation of the movement to abolish slavery. The concept of a racialized mass incarceration has become so common that when Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) acknowledged it in a 2016 debate, his comments made hardly a stir on the right. There are many obstacles to abolition-oriented prison reform: powerful interests such as corporations and police and prison guard unions stand to profit from expansion of the prison industrial complex, as well as politicians who fear being tagged as soft on crime.