Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The New Abolitionism

I know the phrases "defund the police" and "abolish the police" are lightning rods. I remember when I first heard the phrase "abolish the police" at a protest, I was shocked. But, but, but, I thought, even though I knew how wrong our prisons are compared to many other examples in the world and how policing is based in the history of enslavement and still part of white supremacy.

This thread by attorney Aditi Juneja, who now works at the Democracy Project, has a lot of good thoughts about the why's and some beginnings of the how's.

It’s okay to change your mind about things or be curious about new ways to solve a problem. I went to law school knowing our criminal legal system was broken and thinking being a “good” prosecutor is how I could help fix it.

Now I believe in abolition. I’m going to share a bit about why/how my mindset shifted:

I worked for the Manhattan DA’s office for 2 years out of law school. I wrote non-victim misdemeanor complaints up that were used at arraignment when people are first charged with crimes.

My first few days in the office I was surprised to find that complaints are written almost entirely off of the police’s account of what happened. They sign/swear to it but there’s no need to corroborate it at the phase where complaints are being drafted.

This might seem like it’s not a big deal because this is just the phase where people are being charged with crimes. The problem? Most people take plea deals for non-victim misdemeanors at arraignment (when they’re first being charged).

Another thing that surprised me: Most non-victim misdemeanors are for “crimes” that cost the city/community more money to enforce than the harm the crime does to the community. For example, shoplifting. From arrest to arraignment, it costs the city like 5k.

And you might think...but if we don’t arrest/prosecute people for shoplifting, everyone will do it! We need a deterrent! But all the studies show that the thing that deters people from committing “crimes” is certainty of getting caught. Not the severity of punishment.

Additionally, as you start to look at who gets arrested and where what you see is where and policing happens and who can afford privacy effects a lot of who gets caught up in our system. For example, Black and white people do drugs at the same rates. But Black people get arrested at much higher rates.

Why is that? It’s where cops police and who smokes weed inside their suburban house vs. in the park in a city.

Similarly, you see people get caught up in our system because our systems are confusing. You see people with hundreds of arrests for unlicensed general vending bc getting a street vendors license is confusing, especially if your English isn’t very good!

You see people arrested for driving without a license whose license got suspended because they didn’t pay tickets. But they have to work to pay off those tickets, so what do we do? Arrest them for driving without a license and give them more fines

There are a lot of crimes that are crimes of poverty and crimes that are only crimes for certain people bc of the neighborhoods in which the police spend their time.

I left the DA’s office thinking we should decriminalize those crimes and direct people to resources instead.

The summer after my 1L year, I worked at the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. While I was there, I learned about a few things I didn’t know before, including pre-trial detention, mental health and the criminal legal system, school to prison pipeline, and sex offender reentry.

Pre-trial detention: so we all know we’re innocent until proven guilty? That’s only true if you have money. If you don’t, you can be held in jail before you’ve had a trial or due process bc your family can’t pay bail. As we look at how to change that we find a few things

First, the federal system doesn’t do bail the way the state/local systems do. They have a requirement to look for alternatives/a pre-trial approach that guarantees appearance but doesn’t have people detained. So we already know we don’t need bail to work like this. Also, with the increase in bail funds. We see people appear at over like 95% rates even when their bail is being paid by someone else.

So how do we access alternatives to cash/money bail? In some states, laws need to be changed so there are options beyond money bail. Bail bondsman lobby against those changes. In New York, the law already has those options! So why don’t they get used? Because judges often set the pre-trial conditions prosecutors ask for. Usually cash bail. This makes changes quite challenging because it’s not an issue of law. It’s an issue or custom. It’s about changing habits and the internal policy of the DA’s office. When I look at candidates running for DA in New York, I always look at what their platform says about cash bail

Now let’s talk about mental health and the criminal legal system. When mental health institutions were disbanded in the 1960s, they were supposed to be replaced by community health centers. But they never were. So what happened instead? People were incarcerated.

And now what we see is there are a small group of people who move between the criminal legal system, hospitals and homeless shelters and use up A LOT of government resources while never really getting the help they need. When I was at MOCJ in summer of 2015, they were working to identify those people and provide them with a lot of support - housing, health services, a caseworker etc. to keep folks out of jails/prisons. Why? Because it would actually save the city money

Another thing I learned more about, as I mentioned, the school to prison pipeline. In many schools across the US, there are cops, but not counselors/therapists. When kids do things kids do (eg hit someone), they don’t just get suspended, they get arrested.

I was a kid who hit a lot of people. From K-12, I was suspended probably 10 times? I’ve never been arrested. Why? Because my school didn’t have cops. What schools do? You guessed it - schools where students are nonwhite and where students are poor.

If you get arrested as a kid, you’re missing time in class. And the more time you miss, the more you’re likely to drop out.

Did you know there's a school on Rikers Island? They have to have one because you can get charged as an adult at 16. I’ve been there. It’s a great school — small class sizes, personalized learning, culturally competent curriculum, trauma-informed teachers, enough counselors for every student to meet with one daily. Students say it’s the best experience they’ve had at school and they perform well.

The principal of that school told us that he can predict who’ll end up on Rikers with 3 things: 1) Zip code, 2) days of school missed in 8th grade and 3) if they’re not white (white families can usually pull together bail). We know the risk factors but we don’t prevent it. Kids have to wait until they’re literally in jail to have a supportive classroom experience, 3 meals and a stable living situation.

Seems like it would be less expensive to provide those things before folks end up in jail

Last thing I worked on that summer: sex offender management/reentry. I wrote a memo on what happens when people who were convicted of sex crimes get released from jails/prisons and back into community (which happens for the VAST majority of people convicted of these crimes).

A few things happen:
1) You get put on the sex offender registry
2) It’s almost impossible to find housing
3) It’s almost impossible to find employment

First, the sex offender registry in New York has levels that are supposed to correlate to your risk to the community. In 2015, the way they assessed that risk in New York was using a tool that was completely made up and had no correlation to likelihood to reoffend. It was junk science.

Second, being on the list means it’s really hard to find housing. There are few places that let sex offenders live there. As a result, people end up in violation of their parole because they’re living near/in proximity to other sex offenders. That can get you back in prison

It’s also really hard to find a job as a sex offender. And people need to eat. So, they often turn to illegal ways to make money. That also violates parole and gets people back in jails/prisons.

The system sets people up to fail.

Now you might be thinking, “Okay, Aditi. But there are serious crimes. Are we really going to let murders and rapists not be in prison?” Well, my 2L summer I worked at the Brooklyn DA’s office prosecuting felony sex crimes. I saw a few things there:

One, I saw people who had been victims of sex crimes now perpetrating sex crimes. I asked prosecutors how that was accounted for in sentencing and what treatment people got if that was their situation. The answers? It wasn’t, and none.

Second, I noticed a lot of the victims/perpetrators were low income and people of color. I asked about that. Brooklyn is diverse and white folks definitely experience these types of crimes and perpetrate them. The response?

For poor folks, it's often the only way to access resources — mental health services etc. Wealthier folks can access those things in other ways. Money buys you privacy.

I really struggled to understand how incarcerating people without any type of treatment/support only to send them back into community was helpful. It seemed like they might be worse when they got out and do more harm. Also it wasn’t clear to me the process was helping survivors. I left thinking we needed to do a lot more to support survivors so they didn’t perpetuate further harm. And we needed to focus a lot more on prevention - comprehensive sex education that teaches about consent.

One other thing I learned in law school? Murder has the lowest recidivism rate. So, if we’re worried about that people repeat offending. This isn’t the crime to worry about. Now maybe that’s because of long sentences, people do “age out” of committing crime.

Last year, I learned that police only solve about half of murders. And I read a lot about what types of murders exist - intimate partner violence, gang violence, murders committed during robberies or other crimes. Again, it seems like a lot more could be done to prevent them

So, I now believe in abolition. After thinking we should shrink the system — decriminalize some crimes, direct people to resources, do more prevention, provide more public defenders — I realized the system is not keeping us safe. And it’s doing a lot of harm.

I believe the vast majority of crimes don’t need to be crimes at all. I think with more resources into prevention and making sure people have the support to live we could reduce the amount of crime overall. And I’m learning about other models of accountability and justice

I also want to say that I think a lot about the harm I did while I was on this journey by participating and working within this system. I haven’t figured out how to repair that harm. But it’s not lost on me what I did.

And when I think about the harms of the system as a whole, I don’t think it comes close to being worth the benefits it may have for a few.

I think we need to abolish the whole thing and pour those resources into prevention and other tools for accountability.

This Why Is This Happening podcast, where Chris Hayes talks with prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba, gives a good feeling of the core perspective on abolitionism. Her new book, We Do This ’Til We Free Us, came out in February.

No comments: