Prison Abolition Is Pragmatic
11:31 AM EST on January 30, 2023
The 2020 uprisings replaced calls to “reform the police” with “defund the police.” The abolitionist bent of this demand catalyzed the first moment of sunlight for prison-industrial-complex abolition, a generations-old movement historically ignored by mainstream journalists and academics. Suddenly, Mariame Kaba had a byline with The New York Times, and Ivy League law professors were organizing abolitionist education.
The backlash was swift. Arguments against abolitionism started as op-eds and quickly grew to include law review articles and entire books.
NYU law professor Rachel Barkow’s recent anti-abolition law review article provides an excellent platform from which to launch some much-needed critiques to this backlash. I’ll focus on four of her arguments. First, abolitionist campaigns (like defund) stir up a reactionary backlash that drives counter-productive policy changes. Second, by opposing certain incremental reforms, abolitionists treat currently criminalized people as sacrifices for a utopian future that will never materialize. Third, American voters love punishment, and abolitionism is doomed to the extent that it rejects this punitive impulse. Fourth, abolitionist “absolutism” will undermine short-term de-carceration efforts.
These arguments engage my own reasons for identifying as an abolitionist. I don’t approach this from “first principles” as many of my comrades do, but from a pragmatic perspective. I believe that a powerful abolitionist movement will achieve far better results than a preservationist reform movement. Rather than stubborn idealists, I understand my comrades to be principled organizers who act in the interest of freeing as many people as possible.
Unlike many preservationists, Barkow has clearly done the reading. She’s also not engaging this question in the abstract—she served on the federal U.S. Sentencing Commission and has been a strong advocate for clemency. Accordingly, I think that Barkow’s article asks some good questions—even if her answers fall short.
Barkow’s first argument is that abolitionist campaigns have been counterproductive. The primary case Barkow considers is the defund movement, which she argues “led to an even greater investment in police departments,” due to the negative connotation of defund as a “slogan” (i.e., “defund the police” emphasizes police budget cuts rather than reallocations).
The claim that defund campaigns caused police budgets to increase requires much stronger evidence—as a social scientist, I raised my eyebrow here, and I’m having trouble lowering it. For example, Barkow tries to pin the blame for Baltimore mayor Brandon Scott's reversal on police budget cuts on the defund campaign's alienation of would-be supporters, but fails to mention that Scott only changed course after a federal judge overseeing Baltimore's consent decree threatened to fine the city over police budget cuts. Nor does she mention the fact that homicide rates crept back up to where they were 20 years ago as COVID-19 lockdowns ended in 2020—a datapoint that explains rising police budgets just as easily as any other. The point is that you can throw a stick and find any number of ready-made explanations for increased police budgets, but there should be a higher burden of proof when attempting to lay blame at the feet of a nascent protest movement, particularly when police department budgets have been increasing steadily for decades.This has always been the status quo, especially in deep-blue urban centers.
It seems premature to conduct an autopsy of defund campaigns—Barkow wrote off defund before even a single election cycle had elapsed. A grassroots campaign to abolish student debt only recently achieved an incremental win after years of hard work. Two months after Barkow’s article was published, Kenneth Mejia was elected Controller in Los Angeles on an explicitly abolitionist platform. He’s not the only one—abolitionist and former public defender Tiffany Cabán also serves on New York’s City Council, and she won her election back in 2021. If our flowers are allowed time to grow, they will bloom.
So, it’s far from obvious that defund was the culprit behind recent police budget increases. Could defund change the prospects of other campaigns? Barkow argues: “More modest efforts to decarcerate and limit the reach of criminalization and punishment in America could be curtailed because of a negative association with abolition.” To support this argument, Barkow cites Barack Obama’s denunciation of defund—he argued that the message of abolitionism will create reactionary backlash. Yet as I write this, a package of reforms that was first introduced at the height of the defund protests just made its way through the DC council. If anything, it looks like defund has created political space for all sorts of incremental reforms.
With respect to “negative associations,” I disagree with the use of public opinion data or other arguments about “attitudes” to measure a political campaign’s efficacy. Isn’t changing minds the whole point of activism? Successful civil rights movements for racial equality and gay marriage would be underwater using this barometer (though it’s not actually clear that opinion polls sink defund). Americans hate the idea of a better society right up until the point where that better society is already being created.
Barkow makes a second argument that relies on attitudes: “Politicians may fear being labeled as abolitionists if they support any reform.” Republicans called centrist Democrats “socialists” long before Bernie Sanders and the new iteration of DSA got left-leaning Americans to call themselves by that label. The political Right—including Democratic officials—has such solid ownership of law-and-order politics that no punitive caveats from preservationists will ever hope to compete. Indeed, Joe Biden was famous during his tenure in the Senate for trying to turn “tough on crime” politics into a liberal mainstay. Where did that get us?
I would prefer for politicians to fear abolitionists rather than fearing the label of abolitionist. What I fear most is a de-carceration movement that genuflects to enlightened cops or prosecutors as tokens of a “bipartisan consensus” on punishment bureaucracy renovation. De-carceration advocates cannot continue to work within the ideological framework that produced mass criminalization. By contrast, abolitionists understand the present need to build power instead of sucking up to politicians and “practitioners.” These efforts could lead to the election of left politicians who have somewhat firmer backbones—or, at the very least, a justified fear of abolitionist opposition.
There are limited windows where incremental changes to policing and incarceration are politically viable, and one abolitionist argument is that we need to make use of those windows very carefully. This is why Obama’s sneering dismissal of defund is worth examining—after the rise of Black Lives Matter in 2014, the Obama administration squandered what could have been a transformative moment in exchange for body-worn cameras and procedural justice training. (Or, more cynically, they deftly co-opted it.) Abolitionists argued against body-worn cameras, predicting that cameras would expand police surveillance capacity while failing to reduce police violence. They were right. This was one of the most significant policy outcomes of the Ferguson uprising, and it was worse than a waste of political capital—it created a new funding stream for police departments and technologists at Axon while also functioning as an effective distraction from abolitionist alternatives (like the invest/divest framework that preceded defund).
Barkow also addresses abolitionists’ opposition to preservationist campaigns, arguing that “abolitionists will needlessly forego political reforms that will benefit currently incarcerated people for an abolitionist future that will never materialize.” The history of the campaign to close the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City provides a strong rebuttal to Barkow’s claim that abolitionists eschew tactics that would benefit incarcerated people in the short term.
Following earlier abolitionist organizing by the Campaign to Shut Down Rikers, the foundation-funded #CLOSErikers campaign began in 2016. This campaign partnered with politicians to advocate the construction of new “borough-based jails” (BBJ) before closing Rikers, a clear strategic shift from prior organizing. In 2017, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio released a plan to close Rikers by 2027 after opening the new jails. Abolitionists opposed the plan, arguing that the jail population could be reduced immediately. From the start, abolitionists insisted on changes that would benefit incarcerated people in 2017 rather than 2027.
BBJ plan advocates insisted that the city jail population needed to drop to 5,000 before jails could be demolished. In a concession to No New Jails (NNJ) organizers, the de Blasio administration later reduced that target to 3,300. NNJ abolitionists argued that jails could be demolished immediately in order to pressure police to reduce arrests—there was no need to wait, and the insistence on building new jails first constituted a critical weakness in that plan. Salaried nonprofit officers and politicians complained that unpaid NNJ organizers hadn’t presented a comprehensive alternative plan. Despite Barkow’s claim that abolitionists prefer not to “get bogged down in pragmatic details” such as “wonky blueprints,” NNJ released an extensive report outlining strategies to reduce the jail population without new construction. It was largely ignored.
BBJ advocates also said that the City Council vote on jail construction was “binding,” and a vote to build new jails in 2019 would force politicians to demolish jails in 2027. On the contrary, NNJ warned that the Council vote was experimental and that a future mayor could do whatever they wanted. Our nightmare scenario was the erection of four new jails with no demolition of the old jails—an expansion of jail capacity.
We are well on our way towards that nightmare. The City Council approved the plan, and Bill de Blasio got his “closing Rikers” headlines. Shortly afterward, de Blasio headed to Albany to lobby for bail reform rollbacks despite his awareness that rollbacks would prevent the jail population from dropping to 3,300. Two months later, COVID-19 hit NYC. Rikers was recognized as a global hotspot for the virus, and thousands of detainees and guards were infected. Citywide budget cuts led politicians to voice concerns that jail construction would be delayed, yet even as New York City’s jail population sank below 4,000—the lowest figure since 1946—the city refused to demolish jails. Abolitionists continued to call for releases throughout 2020 while preservationists explained abysmal conditions with a corrections union-approved “understaffing” narrative.
In 2021, New York elected a cop mayor who brought the jail population back to nearly 6,000. Since then, Eric Adams indicated that he has no intention to close Rikers, and NYC Corrections Commissioner Molina testified: “We have to think about, where does the balance of people go if we are not at the population of 3,300 in 2027? In 2027, we will not be at 3,300.” Nineteen people died in city jails in 2022 alone.
We lost that fight. It remains unclear whether the preservationists believe that they won. Who is suffering now thanks to their decisions?
Let’s return to Barkow’s argument: abolitionist opposition to short-term prison reforms could doom incarcerated people to enjoying no improvements whatsoever. How many currently incarcerated people will still be incarcerated (or alive) by the time a proposal to improve prison conditions is implemented? Abolitionists advocate to use limited political capital to reduce total exposure to incarceration instead of making marginal improvements to conditions. Part of the reason for that is a belief that hiring more guards or building a new wing of a troubled prison won’t improve conditions much at all. A century ago, Rikers itself was hailed as a “model” penitentiary. How many years will it take for the new reform institutions to be recognized as sites of brutality, illness, and death?
Barkow writes that abolitionists engage “in the same strategic calculations that all political actors do,” and she’s right that there is a brutal calculation being made here. We should recognize, though, that both parties are doing it. This line of argument was frequently wielded against No New Jails NYC organizers in 2018-19 (these people want Black and Brown New Yorkers to be stuck in the Tombs), as if the preservationists hadn’t made their own ugly calculations.
This is the abolitionist realpolitik: we want to free people immediately, and we want as few people as possible to be incarcerated in the future. I could imagine my comrades being wrong in some cases and right in others. On balance, though, I think abolitionists have had better political analysis. Part of the reason for that is the abolitionist belief in a “longer arc” of political education and mobilization—the belief that building organizations to oppose punishment and brainstorm a better and less violent world is a viable political strategy.
This brings us to a third set of Barkow’s arguments. What do we do about the fact that Americans still seem horny for punishment?
Barkow initially argues that voters will reject abolition at the ballot box because it doesn’t “provide an answer to all potential harms.” As abolitionists constantly point out, the status quo of draconian punishment and ever-expanding police power is an abject failure, at least if we understand criminalization as an effort to “answer harms” rather than cause them. The incarceration capital of the world is far from the safest place in the world.
So that’s not the real reason why Americans would oppose abolition. Indeed, in a subsequent paragraph, Barkow gets to the heart of it: “the public and survivors of the crime want punishment to convey the social meaning of condemnation that the nature of those acts require,” even if that punishment “leads to more harm overall” (i.e., harms public safety).
Do we really want to be fatalist about this? Are we okay with a political solidarity that relies on caging, killing, or sexually violating people who have committed harm? This is part of why abolitionists invoke slavery abolition—much like slavery, we believe that there will come a day when people look back on American punitive politics with shame and revulsion. Barkow writes that abolitionism is “not punitive enough.” I think it is genuinely unclear whether she personally supports punitive politics or simply recognizes that this ideology is widespread, though certainly not totalizing
American punishment fetishism is the core of why I started identifying as an abolitionist rather than simply agreeing with abolitionists in specific instances. I believe that “retributive justice” (in Barkow’s terms) is politically damaging, and campaigns that undermine this sense of “justice” provide important political education. To the extent that American political cohesion is limited to hostile solidarity, we are doomed to a callow and poisonous politics that prefers brutal moral performances to actual mitigation of harm. If the preservationist endgame involves “rehabilitative” prisons and “respectful” policing, it’s not clear how they’ll create political consensus for this stuff without attacking the American punitive impulse. As far as I can tell, most Americans want prisons to be sites of violence—they just disagree on whether the prison population should consist of young Black men or white-collar crooks and people who commit hate crimes. That seems bad!
Retribution is not a viable basis for improving material conditions—punishment “individualizes disorder” into interpersonal dramas as an entertaining distraction from the structural causes of harm. Barkow writes that individual flaws like “lust” and “greed” will always lead to interpersonal conflict. Perhaps this is so. Yet those individual flaws have nothing to do with the structural origins of mass criminalization. The punishment bureaucracy was created to destroy political resistance to racial capitalism. Surely, the peer nations to whom Barkow gestures also suffer from the seven deadly sins, but American criminalization is world-historically unique. The key difference is the punitive impulse—and the “policy response” to that impulse is rooted in America’s history of chattel slavery and segregation.
More pragmatically, if we concede that people who do genuinely harmful things need to be punished through state violence, mass criminalization will persist. As John Pfaff has most forcefully argued, the U.S. prison population is primarily composed of people who’ve done terrible things. America did not become the world leader in incarceration by locking up “non-violent drug offenders.” Thus, taking the “mass” out of “mass criminalization” (ostensibly the end goal of preservationist reformers) will require explicit pushback on punitive ideology. This is true even if you oppose abolition and simply want to reduce prison populations.
That’s going to mean talking about better ways to deal with people who’ve done seriously terrible things. There’s no escaping it. If we limit ourselves to thinking as if punishment fetishism is a permanent fixture of American politics, mass criminalization and surveillance will endure.
All of the arguments Barkow makes in her article hinge on a core premise: abolitionism is “absolutist,” and abolitionist political strategy hinges on “the likelihood of prisons being abolished” at some future point. With this claim, Barkow explicitly alleges that abolitionists allow “the perfect [to] be the enemy of the good.”
It is difficult to square these claims with the reality of abolitionist organizing. As Dan Berger, Mariame Kaba, and David Stein wrote in response to a prior criticism, our work emphasizes “measures that reduce the power of an oppressive system while illuminating the system’s inability to solve the crises it creates.” Abolitionists regularly do coalition work with preservationists to effect incremental reforms that benefit criminalized people in the short term. To provide just one example, we have held our noses and organized to elect reform prosecutors in cities like Chicago and Philadelphia. I urged friends to vote for Alvin Bragg in Manhattan, and abolitionists then spent countless hours on a campaign pressuring him to stick to his campaign promise and drop a case against criminalized survivor Tracy McCarter.
I have been explicit in past writing that my long-term vision for an abolitionist society requires something like reparations. To be fair, that’s not exactly a small political lift. Barkow seizes upon this, arguing that the breadth of abolitionism (i.e. attacking capitalism) could alienate “fiscal conservatives” whose participation in a “bipartisan backlash against mass incarceration” is, ostensibly, necessary. I may be unlike some abolitionists in that I’m willing to do coalition work with the right. In considering my end goal, however, the role that the right can or will play seems limited. Their explicitly stated goal is to make criminalization more cost-effective.
I can see the writing on the wall: After a few tweaks, the right will lose interest, and continue to dismantle all sorts of public institutions that abolitionists might instead prefer to buttress and scale up. As Marie Gottschalk has pointed out, the Texas Public Policy Foundation—home to “Right on Crime”—recently opposed Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansions. Plenty of researchers recognize that healthcare makes us safer—Medicaid expansions reduce various interpersonal harms that lead to arrest and incarceration. Not so smart on crime, after all.
Even before the broader abolitionist vision can be realized—or even if it is never realized—we advocate abolitionist reforms. I always try to gesture to affirmative, achievable alternatives when I critique reform policy. These are incremental changes that fall far short of something like reparations or revolution, yet are compatible with abolitionist imaginings of a safer and more just society. Abolitionists thus call for “one million experiments.” Where’s the danger in advocating for that?
I struggle to understand how it makes sense to call a movement like this “absolutist.” It’s surely fair to say that abolitionism is principled. Yet the call to use our imaginations and work together to build a better society doesn’t seem to me like a particularly rigid or alienating political vision. Mo Torres helpfully introduces abolition as an invitation. This is exactly right: we are inviting you to help brainstorm our millionth experiment.
Isn’t it more rigid and alienating when preservationists claim that a better world is impossible or undesirable? Why is this kind of argument never called “absolutist”?
I think the largest problem with Barkow’s article is that she evades a clear statement of what the preservationist endgame looks like. At what point will the preservationist feel satisfied and close up shop? Abolitionists are very clear about this: We want to destroy the prison industrial complex through simultaneous organizing against racism, capitalism, imperialism, and the attendant social structures that produce interpersonal harm. Aside from a gesture to “humane, non-discriminatory, and just” criminalization policy in a footnote, Barkow does not clarify what her ideal criminal justice policy would look like. Is it a Scandinavian prison? Rates of police violence and incarceration that resemble those of European nations? The reader can’t tell, and this vagueness makes it difficult to engage, charitably or otherwise. How can we pragmatically evaluate political action without a clear framework to assess victory or defeat?
When abolitionists argue against sentencing reforms that free only a politically palatable subset of prisoners, we are imagining the difficulty of a future campaign to free only the subset whose freedom was considered an uphill battle. Perhaps Barkow thinks that subset should remain in prison. This would be consistent with her argument that the abolitionist vision is insufficiently punitive. In that case, it’s not an issue of abolitionists being absolutist dreamers. We simply have different and potentially conflicting goals.
We see this kind of conflict crop up constantly with police reform. Preservationists argue against defunding, saying that funding for body cameras could lead to “more lawful” police stops, or that the right training could reduce racial disparities. Abolitionists are concerned with ending police violence, not making police violence affect white and Black people in equal proportions. That’s why we only support reforms that reduce police power, staffing, and technology.
To Barkow’s point, it may genuinely be the case that body cameras and procedural justice training are more politically viable than reallocating police budgets (though it’s still too early to say for sure). But that wouldn’t turn federal funding for body cameras into a win. If punitive ideology requires persuasion, I want to persuade people to support the right kinds of changes.
And so we have competing visions from preservationists and abolitionists. Is it the case that abolitionists are misguided idealist allies whose “absolutist” tactics will not yield a shared goal? Or are we increasingly powerful enemies whose advocacy makes preservationist goals seem unimaginative and counter-productive? This is why the incessant criticisms of the defund movement are so grating. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the loudest voices of disagreement are pretending to share our goals so that they can defeat us. Perhaps this is easier to accomplish than arguing against abolitionism on the merits.
In the short term, an abolitionist political strategy says that we should choose to fight for changes that don’t force future generations of anti-criminalization organizers into a corner. When we oppose preservationist reforms, it’s not because we are waiting idly for our preferred future to materialize—it’s because those reforms make the abolitionist horizon more distant. I’m grateful that Barkow has taken the time to actually engage on that level of analysis. Most of our opponents don’t even bother to do the reading.
Jonathan Ben-Menachem is a PhD student in Sociology at Columbia University, where he researches the politics of criminalization. He has written about similar topics for the Washington Post, Slate, The Appeal, and more.
Stay in touch
Sign up for our free newsletter