How does one grapple with the diverging paths of reform vs. abolition efforts? Reform is clearly needed, but such efforts serve to reinforce and re-legitimize the system as a whole. Abolition is the radical approach, but mass incarceration wouldn’t happen if there were not already a dispensable subclass of society deemed unworthy of freedom. Is there a way to reform a system that relegates large numbers of people from racially oppressed communities to an isolated existence marked by authoritarian regimes and technologies of seclusion that produce severe mental and spiritual instability that doesn’t involve scrapping it entirely?
Reform efforts could potentially remedy a plethora of crucial issues central to mass incarceration, but it seems unlikely that anything short of abolition could correct minority over-representation. Throughout history, crime and punishment has always been married to race. In 1900, the black-white incarceration disparity in America was seven to one — roughly the same disparity that exists today on a national scale. The same regions of the country that employ capital punishment the most frequently today are the same regions that had the greatest concentration of lynchings in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
A serious redesign of our carceral state would start be envisioning a smaller prison population. But to return to pre-1972 levels of incarceration America would have to cut it’s by prison and jail population by nearly 80 percent. The task is Herculean. Such restructuring efforts cannot pretend that the past fifty years of criminal justice policy didn’t inflict nearly-unimaginable mistreatment and damage. We cannot adequately reform the justice system if we refuse to see the interconnectedness to institutions, communities, and the politics that encompass it.
Let’s imagine for a moment the impact of tangible reform efforts such as sentencing re-evaluation or the softening of post-release legal barriers. If crime rates were to swell in this reformist realm, there is no reason to believe that communities of color would not be disproportionately imprisoned again. State sanctioned devastation is generational for communities of color in America — and incarceration is the current mechanism that ensures devastation continues. Incarceration diminishes any hope of upward economic mobility. Incarceration disqualifies one from feeding their family with food stamps. Incarceration allows for housing discrimination based on criminal background checks. Incarceration increases the risk of homelessness and mental health issues. Incarceration increases the chance of being incarcerated again. If generational devastation is the black hole in which communities of color reside, incarceration is the door closing overhead.
Enslavement lasted over 250 years. The next 150 years involved Jim Crow, convict-leasing, and mass incarceration. Perhaps the only response to the State trying to abolish certain communities is abolition in return.