Defund the Police has become a political slogan of the left in cities across the country. But that mantra is a little timid compared to a new slogan that is taking hold among law professors: Abolish Prisons. This program is now regularly and seriously pressed in the academy’s most important law reviews. It is the subject of earnest discussion at conferences and faculty workshops across the nation. There is now a cottage industry of tenured professors who write about its nuances and more no doubt will soon secure tenure for doing so.
Its prominence and the arguments deployed its favor show the willingness of the legal academy and the intellectual class in general to tolerate foolish arguments so long as they conform to current fashions on the left. Rather than build a framework for incremental reform based on empirical evidence, such legal academics are now paid to engage in utopian—even nihilistic–rhetoric. It might be thought that these kinds of ideas—from abolishing prisons to defunding the police to eliminating standardized tests—mark a return to the radicalism of the 1960s.
But then the radicalism came from students against the establishment. Here the radicalism comes from the educational establishment itself. The better historical analogy is to nineteenth-century Russia. There the intelligentsia contained substantial radical elements, offering not to reform but to destroy the institutions of its society. Fyodor Dostoevsky memorably captured their perfervid meanderings in his great novel, The Possessed.
It is important to understand what prison abolitionism is not about to appreciate the significance of this becoming a serious topic in the law school world. Prison abolition does not argue for making prisons more humane. It does not suggest that they should become more effectively rehabilitative, returning people to a productive place in society. It does not argue for decreasing the prison population by further reducing the number of people imprisoned for non-violent crimes or for releasing prisoners as they age out of the likelihood of committing further crimes. These kind of incremental reforms may well be plausible schemes for social improvement, but they are anathema to many prison abolitionists. Such reforms represent the kind of cost-benefit analysis within the framework of the status quo that is wholly opposed to the spirit of destroying institutions.