The False Promise of Criminal Justice Reform

Irina Baranova

The movement to abolish prisons and policing in the United States was not born last spring. But after the uprisings against racist police violence that erupted across the nation in 2020, abolitionist ideas have never been more widespread, whether in the pages of previously dismissive and hostile periodicals or in the average citizen’s social media feed. That a majority of Americans believed that protesters were justified in burning down a Minneapolis police station after the murder of George Floyd offered a striking confirmation of this sea change. More concretely, a 2020 report from Interrupting Criminalization concluded that organizing in almost two dozen cities resulted in the divestment of over $840 million from police departments and a reinvestment of nearly $160 million back into communities, along with a number of victories in removing police from schools, banning military-grade weapons or facial-recognition software, and achieving greater transparency and community control over local police budgets.

Yet, for all these strides, the mainstreaming of calls to abolish the prison-industrial complex has presented its own problems for activists. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore foresaw in 2015, the heightened awareness of the horrors of racialized mass incarceration—in large part due to the publication of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow—led an “emerging bipartisan consensus” of criminal justice reformers to commandeer the public conversation, funding, and policy-making around prison reform. Co-opting the “vocabulary and rhetorical flourishes” of grassroots anti-prison movements, these reformers ultimately prize bipartisan agreement over principled political struggle, valorize “top-down technocratic tinkering,” and strictly limit their fight to freeing only those “relatively innocent” nonviolent offenders perceived to be least threatening to the status quo. By “defining the problem as narrowly as possible,” Gilmore argued, this reformist model appears to take concrete action against the prison-industrial complex but “produce[s] solutions that…will change little”—all while diverting attention and resources from more radical visions of change.

The recent George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed the House of Representatives earlier this year but stalled in the Senate, offers a perfect example of the illusion of reform. Proposed by Representative Karen Bass (D-Calif.) in response to last year’s protests, the act had the veneer of bold action: It would ban no-knock warrants and choke holds, limit qualified immunity for police, create a national registry on police misconduct, promote the increased use of body cameras, bar racial profiling, and more. It received praise from elected officials and the philanthropic and pundit classes; Van Jones dubbed it “sweeping legislation to match the will of the people.” As Derecka Purnell wrote, however, for all the fanfare surrounding the act, its proposals were “woefully insufficient” and “could not even have saved George Floyd’s life.” For example, there was no chokehold involved in Floyd’s death; instead, Derek Chauvin killed him by forcefully kneeling on his neck. Similarly, given that Floyd did break the law by trying to pass a counterfeit bill, it is difficult to argue that police used his race to presume criminality. More generally, the use of body cameras has not reduced police brutality and might well give law enforcement more power to surveil citizens. For all the lavish praise it received, the Justice in Policing Act, even if passed, would amount to little more than superficial changes that allow policing as we know it to continue apace. Even more suspiciously, the bill would ultimately funnel millions more dollars to law enforcement.

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