The complete abolition of police and prisons has become a popular demand on the socialist Left in recent years. Many have gone so far as to argue that “abolition” should become a central pillar of the socialist project:
“We are resolute in our conviction that the police and the prison system have no place in a socialist world. Strong, well-resourced communities don’t require repression to keep order. There is nothing democratic, nor socialist about police and prisons. The abolition of the police and prison system may seem impossible, but if abolition is unworkable, then so too is socialism.” – Praxis slate for DSA National Political Committee
When most regular people hear about the idea of abolishing the police and prisons, however, they tend to respond with confusion and disbelief. What does it even mean to abolish police? Who will protect innocent people from anti-social behavior? And don’t we need to isolate dangerous people from the rest of society? These are questions which the abolitionist movement has yet to answer in a satisfactory way.
What does prison abolition mean, anyway?
Most abolitionists recognize that even in a dramatically more just society, people will still seriously harm one another, and that society must have a way to deal with this. For example, prison abolitionist Jeannie Alexander writes in Abolition Journal:
“To be clear, we recognize that when harm occurs in a community it may be necessary to separate those whose immediate physical actions have resulted in harm to another. Social separation has its place. However, successful social separation should be as brief as possible and should result in the restoration of the individual to his or her community and the restoration of victims and their families.”
This is reasonable as far as it goes. But it’s not clear what the difference is between Jeannie Alexander’s idea of “social separation” and the most humane prisons in Scandinavian countries such as Norway. Norwegian prisoners enjoy a strikingly high standard of living, with high quality private accommodations, a variety of options for entertainment and learning, and many opportunities to socialize with other inmates. The best behaved inmates even get their own home on prison property— watch!
Not only are Norway’s prisons humane, they’re effective, too. Just 20% of Norwegian prisoners are re-arrested within 5 years of being released, compared to 77% in America. The Directorate of the Norwegian Correctional Service describes its rehabilitation-centric philosophy as follows:
“Prison should be a restriction of liberty, but nothing more. That means an offender should have all the same rights as other people living in Norway, and life inside should resemble life outside as much as possible.”
Socialists should look to Norway’s prison system as a model. But Norwegian prisons are still prisons, because inmates don’t have the freedom to leave. Until medical science develops some kind of “cure” for evil— a drug that would make it impossible for people to intentionally harm one another— we will have to forcibly isolate dangerous people from the rest of society until they are rehabilitated. And even with a cure for evil, we would still have to force criminals to take it.
The fundamental fact that prison abolitionists overlook is that even the most humane societies must use force to protect the social order. While we can dramatically reduce the incidence of crime by guaranteeing a high standard of living for all, it’s nevertheless inevitable that some people some of the time will engage in anti-social behavior, and when this happens society must be prepared to use organized violence (arrest, imprisonment) to neutralize the threat. Talk of “abolishing” prisons and police allows us to engage in utopian thinking, by pretending that it’s somehow possible to do away with all force and violence in the administration of a civilized society. It’s not.
Police officers are actually good
Abolitionists argue that the function of police is not to prevent individual crime, as we might naively assume— it’s to crush popular revolts and to protect the property of the rich. This means that police are an irredeemably reactionary force that must be abolished, rather than reformed.
But if the police are simply servants of the wealthy elite, it’s somewhat of a mystery why police spend most of their time preventing theft and assault, and a vanishingly small amount of time in riot gear. This idea that police only exist to protect rich people stems from a distorted understanding of how the state works and what its function is. The state isn’t inherently on any one “side” of the class struggle. Rather, the state mediates between various different social groups and tries (and often fails) to maintain a relatively peaceful coexistence among all of them. This does mean that the state will tend to protect the property of the rich— but it will also work to prevent individual crime, and it will even give protections to workers if it feels that this is necessary to maintain order. Despite its many flaws and shortcomings, working people are better off with the state than they would be without it.
Police killings are mostly an American problem
Police abolitionists contend that the violence that American police forces inflict on poor and working people, especially people of color, is an inevitable outgrowth of the institution of policing itself which outweighs whatever benefits the police might provide. The data, however, simply do not support this view. On the contrary, they show that police in other developed nations almost never kill civilians.
In the United Kingdom, for example, just six civilians were killed by police from 2016 to 2017. It’s hard to imagine that any hypothetical replacement for the police that abolitionists might dream up could ever achieve a lower civilian death rate than this. In the United States by contrast, 972 civilians were killed by police over the same period— thirty-three times more police killings per capita than the UK. This tells us two things. First of all, it’s entirely possible to have a policing system that kills civilians at very low rates, probably close to the theoretical lower limit of what’s possible. Secondly, the comparatively high rate of police killings in the United States must be due to America-specific factors, rather than universal characteristics of policing itself.
One major factor is obvious: most American police officers are armed, and they are forced to deal with armed civilians much more frequently than police in any other developed nation. It should be no surprise that police killings are dramatically lower in countries where patrol officers are unarmed, such as the United Kingdom or Japan. Unfortunately, however, disarming the police isn’t on the cards in the US any time soon. Given the high concentration of guns in civilian hands in the United States, any attempt to take guns away from police would lead to an unacceptably sharp increase in both police and civilian deaths. If we wanted to disarm the police, we would first have to confiscate hundreds of millions of guns from American civilians, followed by a dramatic tightening of gun laws across the country. Given the Second Amendment and the deeply ingrained gun culture of the United States, this is a politically impossible task.
We need better police, not no police
In recent years, some Black Lives Matter activists who adhere to the abolitionist paradigm have taken up the slogan, “Defund the Police.” The idea is that, since our end goal should be to eliminate the police, socialists should oppose all increases in police presence in crime ridden neighborhoods or additional funding to police departments, no matter the circumstances. But given the evidence from the social science literature (see Chalfin & McCrary 2012) indicating that increases in police presence do indeed reduce crime rates, the idea of “defunding the police” is positively irresponsible in most cases.
Defunding the police is also very unpopular, among Americans of all races. Polling by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research has found that the vast majority of African-Americans (81 percent) would oppose any reduction in police presence in their communities, even if it meant they would pay substantially less in taxes. Strikingly, black Americans are actually more than twice as likely as whites to support an increase in police presence in their neighborhoods. These statistics clearly demonstrate that police abolitionism is an extremely fringe position among people of color, as well as the American public as a whole. The idea that it’s somehow “racist” to oppose police abolition is laughable. Abolitionists don’t speak for people of color— the vast majority of workers of color disagree with them.
How to transform the criminal justice system
Recognizing the necessity of police and prisons doesn’t mean that socialists can’t have a radical, transformative vision for the criminal justice system. The United States in particular has a serious problem with mass incarceration, and our legal system shows clear economic and racial biases. We have a lot of work ahead of us. Here are just some of the demands that socialists should be fighting for:
- End cash bail.
- End the death penalty.
- End mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
- End private prisons.
- Establish a single-payer legal system where everyone, including the rich, is provided with free, equal legal representation from the state.
- Legalize marijuana; decriminalize all other drugs. Retroactively expunge the records of nonviolent drug offenders.
- Mandate body cameras for all police officers.
- Overhaul the prison system with rehabilitation as its central goal. Norway should be a model.
The American Left would do well to take a page out of the book of the British Labour Party on this issue. Labour has taken a sharp turn to the Left in recent years, thanks to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as its party leader in 2015. But the committed socialists at the head of the Labour Party clearly don’t have a problem with advocating for an expansion of the police force. Labour’s manifesto calls for recruiting 10,000 more police officers across Britain, to reverse cuts that the Conservative government has made to police departments in recent years:
Labour understands that police officers are public servants, just like teachers and firefighters, and that our communities are safer with them than without them. Let’s be more like the Labour Party.