For the past several years, U.S. law enforcement locked up an alarming number of individuals with no sign of slowing down. Due partly to the fact that many of the inmates cannot afford bail as well as the snail’s pace of court systems, many jails and prisons are overcrowded with thousands of individuals who are only minor offenders.
While overcrowding is a major concern regarding the justice system, it is by no means the only one. Issues concerning racism and the inhumanity of incarceration in general also loom large. A movement that is gaining traction in response to these circumstances is prison abolitionism. Aptly named, the movement advocates for restructuring society to provide healthier environments to supposedly bring down crime rates and eliminate the need for prisons.
As an employee at the Washington County Detention Center, I see the realities of incarceration up close every day. Based on what I have seen there as well as what I know about U.S. incarceration, the U.S. prison system does need drastic reform, but to abolish the system altogether would do more harm than good.
In a 2018 article from Politico Magazine, Ruairí Arrieta-Kenna outlines the arguments and ideas from several prison abolitionists. The prisons abolitionist movement is fueled by the idea that locking up human beings is fundamentally inhumane, and society can be improved to the extent that all motives to commit crime are removed.
The idea is undeniably appealing, but unfortunately, this entire premise operates around that idea that crime is preventable enough to justify the disuse of retributive justice.
One of the movement’s foremost arguments is that prison systems reinforce structural racism more than any other institution. On the contrary, the crux of the issue does not lie in the existence of prisons themselves but rather in the courts and law enforcement, as the employees thereof are susceptible to unconscious racist biases. The solution is not to get rid of all prisons. It would instead be more effective to overhaul the judicial system as a whole.
Additionally, it is also unfair to deny victims of violent crime the safety of knowing their attacker is behind bars. There may be an argument to be made that no person should be locked in a cage for a majority of their life, but the physical and emotional security of victims supersedes that priority.
The rights of the victim in these cases are far more important than those of the offender. Perhaps it is undesirable to lock someone up for the rest of their lives, but it is even more undesirable for innocent people to live in fear.
The most common counterclaim to this is that once society has been restructured, violent crimes will not occur. This is a big guarantee for such a radical solution. Unfortunately, the movement provides little to no actual proof that their solution will be effective. Given that they are the ones pushing this extreme idea, the burden of proof rests with the movement, and they have not accomplished this.
It is a very real possibility that there will be those who slip through the cracks and commit dangerous crimes. While reworking societal structure may help alleviate crime, there is not enough evidence to suggest that these measures will eliminate it entirely. Because of this, getting rid of prisons altogether will cause victims to feel unsafe, and that is unacceptable.
Prison abolitionists make the reasonable argument that much crime is the result of a poorly structured society that causes far too many individuals to turn to criminal activity as a means of survival or escape.
Unfortunately, they also neglect to consider that some crime is simply the unavoidable result of bad people doing bad things. That is a much more difficult problem to fix without posing risk to innocent and productive members of society. Prison abolitionists advocate for a utopian society in which incarceration is not necessary. However, assuming that this is possible is enormously erroneous.
Having spent a great deal of time interacting with criminals, I do not believe society can evolve to a point where prisons are fully unnecessary, but I also believe that drastic reform is immediately necessary. However, to simply suggest that we eliminate the need for prisons shows a substantial misunderstanding of the problem.