Teaching Penal Abolition

E flying soldierAmna Akbar –

In April, the New York Times ran a profile on abolitionist visionary and scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and the Harvard Law Review published an entire issue on prison abolition. This fall, the University of Texas Law School Human Rights Center is hosting a conference on abolition. The new journalistic outlet The Appeal runs abolitionist pieces as a matter of course, and outlets like Rolling Stone, The Nation, and Jacobin have too. Podcasts like Chris Hayes’s Why Is This Happening, The Appeal’s Justice in America, and Beyond Prisons have featured probing conversations on abolition with leading organizer-intellectuals Rachel Herzing and Mariame Kaba. And behind it all is a growing movement of abolitionist organizing and campaigns, calling to defund and delegitimize police and prisons, shift resources towards the social wage, and build alternative methods to dealing with the pains and crises of capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy that prisons and police now deflect and exacerbate: Critical Resistance, BYP100No New Jails Seattle, Mijente, Survived and Punished, INCITE, and more.  

Like the movements abolitionist ideas emerge from and are circulating in, abolitionist praxis is shaping the urgency and discourse around criminal law reform. A primary difference between abolitionists and mainstream reformers is the end goal: Abolitionists work toward eliminating prisons and police, and building an alternate and varied set of political, economic, and social arrangements or institutions to respond to many of the social ills to which prison and police now respond. Importantly, abolitionists see their struggle as part of the unfinished work of transforming  the afterlives of slavery in economic, political, and social life.

Abolitionist thinking is central to contemporary debates over how to interpret the meaning of the criminal law and our criminal processes and enforcement mechanisms: it is literally part of the subject of “criminal law” today. We should teach it that way. More broadly law scholars teaching any course touching on criminal law and procedure, police and prisons, borders and border enforcement, should teach abolition. I have written before, including with Jocelyn Simonson, about how to teach criminal law differently, in this movement moment, and attune to the centrality of racialized and anti-black violence to our criminal legal system. Here, I share some notes and resources on teaching abolition. In my experience, teaching abolition requires study, but the study and teaching are more fruitful than I can say in this brief post. Teaching and learning abolition has deepened my study of the history of the United States and the unfinished social movements that define its shape, expanded my imagination of the future, and profoundly reshaped my sense of the work ahead. 

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Restorative Justice and Moral Neoliberalism

Amy J. Cohen – 

Today, groups of left organizers who wish to abolish the current penal system are practicing community mediation. They facilitate dialogic processes where people who have caused harm engage in active listening, relationship-building, and intensive forms of emotional, spiritual, and material reparations. These processes, variously called restorative justice or more often transformative justice and community-based accountability, are both practical and radical. Practical because while organizers wage political battles against the penal state for racial and economic justice, they simultaneously create spaces for people to opt out—to manage conflict and violence by cultivating love and forgiveness as well as armistice, separation, and safety through relationships and forms of reparations meaningful to them. Radical because these mediations prefigure an alternative just society, one in which individual and systemic change are co-constitutive processes.

As I outline in a forthcoming article, these organizers recall a small group of community mediation advocates in the 1970s and 1980s who linked delegalization and decentralization to left visionary politics. As I also outline, however, informal, anti-authoritarian practices of dispute resolution have often attracted bedfellows across a political spectrum. Likewise today, restorative justice enjoys growing support among Republican policymakers, evangelical conservative Christians, and libertarian thinktanks and organizations. Restorative justice is thus intriguing not only for how left organizers use it to advance prison abolition but also for how libertarian and conservative reformers have fashioned it into a tool of American neoliberalism.  Continue reading