Decriminalization Is Not Enough, Abolition Is a Must

Logan Sweeney

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2022

In the United States, since the 1980s, the federal prison population has increased by roughly 790%. Specifically, presently within Illinois, there are approximately 76,000 citizens who are incarcerated. In 2014, Illinois appropriated and spent nearly $1.3 billion on prison budgets. Where even though cannabis is now legal, in Illinois, roughly 90 inmates are still incarcerated for offenses relating to the use, manufacturing, and selling of cannabis. According to the Last Prisoner Project, inmates remain incarcerated even though House Bill 1438 establishes that persons who have been convicted on an offense are granted a pardon because the Bill provides no resentencing or commutation procedures, and the process to have sentences pardoned is slow.

In examining the injustices of carceral punishment, statistics like these show that these injustices are not an anomaly, but rather the norm. Because prisons are premised on punishment, rather than transformative healing, health, and prevention, prisons are a human rights issue, rather than a criminal justice issue. Prisons are premised on punishment, rather than transformative healing and health, and prevention. As a result, resources and funding which are currently given to our present system of policing and prisons should be reallocated to tools that actually serve the community, rather than on incarceration.

History of criminalization

Following the Civil War, communities throughout the United States substituted enslavement for exploitation of prison labor. Specifically, southern states targeted and prosecuted Black people to exploit and abuse inmates labor in state penitentiary-turned-factories. To that end, in Are Prisons Obsolete, Angela Davis described prisons as structures driven by ideologies of racism and the pursuit of profit.

As stated above, it is commonly accepted that people of color, specifically Black people, are targeted, arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced at disproportionate rates. According to the ACLU, in the United States, a Black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a White person and five times more likely to be incarcerated, where there are approximately equal rates of use. Additionally, Latinx people are 1.3 times more likely to be incarcerated than a White person. It is clear that our justice system and prisons are premised on racist ideals and profit daily.

The effects of going to prison

Incarceration physically rips individuals out of their communities and away from their family and friends. Institutions regulate when individuals can speak to their loved ones, where they can charge loved ones a fee to visit and even speak to individuals on the phone. Further, it regulates how affections are shown during visits. It regiments every part of their day from eating, sleeping, and exercising, it surveils every move, and controls access to the rest of society. Thus, it is no surprise that according to the American Psychological Association, sixty-four percent of jail inmates, fifty-four percent of state inmates, and forty-five percent of federal inmates report mental health issues.

According to the World Health Organization, while incarcerated there are numerous factors that affect people’s mental health and wellbeing, including but not limited to, overcrowding, various forms of violence, enforced solitude, lack of privacy, lack of meaningful activity, isolation from social networks, instability and insecurity about future prospects, and inadequate health services.

Additionally, individuals who are incarcerated face stigmatization and societal barriers that make reentry into the community more difficult. These challenges lead to mental health issues, lower lifetime earnings, and negatively affect relationships among parents who are incarcerated and their children. Moreover, whether because of the conditions of incarceration, the societal stigmatization after release, or the lack of assistance with reentry into society, being incarcerated can create major long-term obstacles to building a stable life in the community, such as finding employment, housing, and building relationships.

What about the murders and rapists?

The primary response to abolition is what about the murders and the rapists? People may be scared that people who actively do harm will be free to continue causing harm. However, this fear is weaponized as a justification for maintaining present systems. Additionally, it is unfounded as our current system does not prevent or deter this harm. Where, under our current policing and prison systems, sixty-three percent of sexual assaults are not reported to the police and five percent of the reports made result in an arrest. Additionally, only about eleven percent of all serious crimes result in an arrest, and about two percent end in a conviction. Cities that reduced their police budget were about as likely to see a rise in murderas cities that increased police budgets. Since policing and incarcerating people does not stop or prevent crime, and it does not address harm caused to victims, we should reallocate money to resources and tools which can address and prevent harm, and if harm occurs, will address the victim’s harm.

What can be done?

Criminal punishment does not equate to justice. Institutions control over individual’s life and deprivation of society is not permissible.

In sum, the policing and prison system benefit from incarcerating more people in order to exploit their labor. The prison system is premised on ideas of punishment, recidivism, rehabilitation, and deterrence. However, the United States Department of Justice found that prison sentences do not deter people from committing crimes, and that prisons actually exacerbate recidivism. Additionally, the experience of previously incarcerated people who struggle to find housing, employment, and struggle to build relationships proves that it is not rehabilitating. Thus, the only function of prisons is punishment.

There are many proposed solutions, but the systems that reform or replace our current systems should be based in each specific community and rooted in the needs of that community. One solution that is often discussed is to redistribute government spending on police and the prison system to expenditures that would reduce the number of people arrested, lessen the stigmatization of incarcerated people, and improve community health and wellbeing. With less funding going to carceral punishment and probation and parole, that money can be allocated to social programs to help community members find and access affordable housing, food, and health-related resources, and pursue furthering education and employment. Another way to reallocate money would be to reallocate funding for nonviolent police calls, and providing that funding to mental health professional and other social services agencies which are trained and equipped to handle situations in such a way that does not criminalize and stigmatize individuals who may need help. Specifically in terms of mental health crises, the way to handle these situations is not with handcuffs, jail, and punishment, rather with treatment and trained care.

Finally, increasing funding for social welfare programs could help alleviate financial stress which have been a motivatorfor some individuals to engage in criminal activity, and as stated above, reallocating funding can go to providing mental health counseling to actually prevent people from committing these harms.