The System Is Built for Power, Not Justice
Reforms don’t create more just societies — just ones where more people of color are in charge of the violence
This article is part of Abolition for the People, a series brought to you by a partnership between Kaepernick Publishing and LEVEL, a Medium publication for and about the lives of Black and Brown men. The series, which comprises 30 essays and conversations over four weeks, points to the crucial conclusion that policing and prisons are not solutions for the issues and people the state deems social problems — and calls for a future that puts justice and the needs of the community first.
That was the difference between a cold bus ride or a freezing walk during Boston’s brutal winters. But my client travelled to his weekly group meeting any way that he could with the quarters in his worn brown wallet. We did not discuss what he said in the circle when he went. Or what any other man confessed or kept secret. Our conversations were mostly about whether he signed in for attendance. To finish his probation, we had to show the court that he completed the class.
The probation officer warned me that my client had violated the terms of probation and would be facing jail time. He would lose his weekly meetings, his part-time fast food job, his corner bunk at a shelter, and more. Completely shocked, I called the nonprofit where my client went for meetings and asked about his attendance. The person who answered explained that my client, in fact, rarely missed a class. But each session had a fee and my client only paid a fraction of the total cost. He owed a balance. Attendance wasn’t the issue. Money was.
A couple hundred dollars.
That’s about what I spent to get my locs retwisted and styled where I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A semester worth of Uber rides to nowhere. The tab at law firm recruitment lunches. Yet for my client, it was the difference between a bed in a jail and a corner bunk in a shelter.
The day of the hearing, I prepared to argue that my client had successfully completed each class, and that payment should be an arrangement between him and the nonprofit, not to be used to violate his terms of probation. He’s literally homeless, I screamed inside my own throat. Isn’t this situation obvious? But the court is not for truth, or justice. Just power and persuasion. Right before the clerk called the case, my client bustled through the hall beaming and proud that he made just enough after saving paychecks to cover his debt. He had nothing left except pocket change.
My former client was in a diversion program. He could delay or avoid jail by completing court-mandated group counseling classes to assist with what the judge or prosecutor assumed was an “emotional problem.” This was better than jail, and my law clinic professors wisely trained students to request diversion for our clients, so I did. Diversion is among the “best” reforms in the criminal legal system, yet it still kept people trapped. My client was not in jail, but he was not free. He risked losing his job and temporary housing for reasons that were beyond his control. For example, he had to avoid police encounters, but that condition does not account for Boston Police Department’s disproportionate racial profiling of Black men.
Reforms do not make the criminal legal system more just, but obscure its violence more efficiently. Why spend money to jail someone when you can charge them hundreds of dollars for wearing an electronic ankle shackle forcing them to stay home?
Additionally, even if my client had emotional health challenges, going to jail could exacerbate them. According to the World Health Organization, incarceration is detrimental to mental health due to “various forms of violence, enforced solitude or conversely, lack of privacy, lack of meaningful activity, isolation from social networks, insecurity about future prospects (work, relationships, etc), and inadequate mental health services.” Ironically, the shelter where he slept shares many of these same qualities. Rather than ridding society of the oppressive conditions that can cause our anger, the burden of improvement is on individuals under the threat of imprisonment.
Diversion and other reforms — changes that increase the power, scope, and legitimacy of the criminal legal system — sound great. We want to believe that these reforms are gentle or perhaps that a more diverse system will alleviate the suffering of the people who bear the brunt of the badge and the cage. Yet as Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law detail in their book, Prison by Any Other Name, reforms encourage judges and cops and prisons to enter into our most sacred spaces, our homes, therapy sessions, jobs, schools, hospitals, even places of worship. Your shelter manager or employer now surveils your whereabouts. Your landlord dangles an eviction card over your head for new and arbitrary reasons. Your court-mandated therapy group leader determines that you violated your probation because you are too poor to pay for classes you didn’t sign up to attend.
Counterintuitively, reforms do not make the criminal legal system more just, but obscure its violence more efficiently. Why spend money to jail someone when you can charge them hundreds of dollars for wearing an electronic ankle shackle forcing them to stay home? Florida’s probation officers collected more than $90 million from people on probation, and $11 million worth of forced labor called community service.
This level of systemic oppression reminds me of Audre Lorde’s popular quote that the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house. For me, the full quote is quite compelling:
For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.
While Lorde was originally criticizing white feminists, her assessment can apply here, too; many people believe that the current legal system is our sole source of support for justice, accountability, and even jobs. This belief is bipartisan. Rural residents in Republican districts protest prison closures to avoid job loss. In criticizing social justice calls to defund the police, Democratic mayor Lori Lightfoot explained that Chicago protestors were “eliminating one of the few tools that the city has to create middle-class incomes for black and brown folks.” (emphasis mine) The amorphous, multiracial middle class is managerial, filled with politicians, lawyers, judges, cops, probation officers, prison guards, and nonprofit employees whose job security is predicated on maintaining an unjust system.
If the criminal legal system is our sole source of support, then reform might also be attractive to the ever-growing exploited classes that experience the most injustice, especially if they are Black, Indigenous, immigrant, or have a disability. They likely rely on the criminal legal system mostly out of desperation because their social, economic, and educational supports have been undermined or decimated. For example, a Black teenager in Michigan once incarcerated for not completing her virtual schoolwork was originally on probation because she stole a cell phone and bit her mom’s finger in a fight over not being allowed to go to a friend’s house. Her mom called the police three times on her daughter because she did not know where else to find help.
Even people who police primarily put in prisons experience the carceral state as a sole source of support. Without jail, they would not have health care, therapy, beds, chances to go to school or recover from an addiction—all of which should be plentiful, optional, high-quality, and available for anyone, anywhere, anyway.
The criminal legal system is like the master’s house. Reforms are the master’s tools. Sometimes, Black public defenders will be able to use a tool or two to get their client free, or, a Black prosecutor or judge will even appear to be in charge of the house, which was true in my client’s case. But this will never bring about genuine change. Reforms do not solve the root causes of harm— individual or institutional. The master’s house is on fire, and the more that we try to reform, diversify, and resource it, the more people will suffer as it collapses. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was right to fear, as he once told Harry Belafonte, that he was integrating Black people into a burning house.
Unlike reform, abolition is about dismantling oppressive systems, and expanding or creating sources of support for people like my former client, for Grace and her mother, for me and you. Abolition might feel threatening because it upends the status quo and delusive comforts of cops and cages. Fighting for a society where Black people and our oppressed siblings can thrive is not “normal” in a country built on genocide, theft, slavery, patriarchy, homophobia, xenophobia, ableism, and militarism. The fight is forged. What abolitionists dream and build is more promising than diversifying police departments or expanding probation. Abolition creates more just societies where we don’t need master’s houses, master’s tools, or masters at all.
In a more just world, my client’s pocket change could be the difference between a walk or train fare to his favorite restaurant. Perhaps he could have a corner apartment instead of a corner shelter bunk, and he would feel overwhelmed because he had too many green jobs or too many therapists or too many schools to choose from. He wouldn’t have run in the halls to greet me about paying off his balance for his freedom. His freedom would be free.