3 Part Essay Series on
dismantling the executioner of an oppressive system (Part 1).
dismantling the executioner of an oppressive system (Part 1).
For the past few weeks, there have been many attention-grabbing headlines and sound bites that concern reform of the police in the United States. Whether that be “Defund the Police”, “Abolish the Police” or “Reform the Police”, there is a general desire to throw away the old and bring in the new. However, there are many factors that these ideas often miss, and I believe it is important to address them in a concise manner. If we are to reform the police, we must reform other aspects of society along with it because the police as it exists today in all of its functions did not arise in a vacuum or on its own.
Part I — Problems will discuss the problems in law enforcement, homing in specifically on police funding, police training and police militarization. Part I will also touch on implicit bias, historical origins of policing, private prisons and how a constant demand of prisoners is met with a created supply, completing the system of law enforcement as it exists on the back of racial capitalism. Part II — Defenders of the System will outline people and institutions that defend this system, from law-and-order politicians to police unions, and laws that defend this system, such as qualified immunity and the 13th Amendment. Part III — Solutions will go into depth about how racism and capitalism undergird the entire network of law enforcement in the United States and will offer solutions to fix it. This will take the form of not just the abolition of police, but the decriminalization of mental illness, the decriminalization of drug use and possession and decriminalization of homelessness alongside the overturning of laws that defend the system, the take-down of authoritarian politicians and the deconstruction of heinous institutions.
One of the main problems lies in the legislative criminalization of societal issues. Indeed, as Mariame Kaba writes for the New York Times in an article titled Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police: “As a society, we have been so indoctrinated with the idea that we solve problems by policing and caging people that many cannot imagine anything other than prisons and the police as solutions to violence and harm” (1).
It is time that we envision another approach, an approach that has been advocated for a long time. Therefore, alongside the abolition of police, that is, the deviation of all police funds to providing communities with health care, housing, education and jobs, there must be a movement to decriminalize mental illness, decriminalize drug use and possession and decriminalization of homelessness. Additionally, qualified immunity must be overturned, private prisons abolished, police unions disbanded completely, and power-hungry politicians outed.
A fundamental restructuring or abolishment of the police is needed and desired. The most ardent argument against such an idea is the reactionary notion that, without police, “who will take care of things like rape”? Well, as of today, no one takes care of sexual violence to begin with. In November 2019, it was reported that the very same Minneapolis police department that has been held in contempt for the extrajudicial murder of George Floyd, found nearly 1,700 untested rape kits, spanning 30 years (2). This is not an uncommon occurrence. In the most detailed nationwide inventory of untested rape kits ever, USA TODAY found nearly 70,000 neglected kits covering 1,000-plus police agencies (3). In addition to this, a study in 2010 found that sexual misconduct was the second most common form of police misconduct reported. Half of the sexual misconduct involved minors (4). If anything, the police as an institution are accomplices in perpetuating sexual violence.
Prior to understanding what the abolishment of the police entails alongside the various forms of decriminalization mentioned, there must be an analysis of the current existing dimensions of law enforcement in the United States.
According to Urban.org, “in 2017, state and local governments spent $115 billion on police…and $79 billion on corrections.” That is without mentioning federal grants and resources (5). This amount of spending was not always the case. Lyndon B. Johnson, back in the 1960s, called for a War on Crime, which set a ball in motion that never stopped. It led to the passage of the 1965 Law Enforcement Assistance Act (LEAA), which “established a federal funding stream to increase the strength and size of local law enforcement” in addition to funding things like “bulletproof vests, helicopters, tanks, riees, gas masks” and other military-grade equipment (6). Following the LEAA was the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act in 1968, the last big bill passed by Johnson, which made such funding permanent (7). That same year, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and cities nationwide went up in eames. Nixon doubled down on the War on Crime, touting a strong “Law and Order” campaign, holding the policeman up as equal to a soldier. Local and state government began to mobilize their budgets accordingly. Over time, “policymakers retreated from and eventually dismantled many of the social welfare programs of the Great Society; the War on Crime, on the other hand, became the foremost policy approach to the social and demographic challenges of the late twentieth century” (6). By the time Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, there had already been the equivalent of $20 billion eschewed into crime-control programs (6).
The 1988 elections brought a tough-on-crime outlook onto the Democratic platform, a position that had been a political crutch enjoyed by the Republican party. Indeed, then Vice President George W. Bush barraged the Democratic Part leadership at the time, saying, “…despite tough oratory on crime, Democratic leaders cannot find it within their ‘hearts’ to take tough measures” (8).
In the 1990s, the federal government began to increase its scope of law enforcement spending more than ever before, consequently championed by Democrat Bill Clinton’s administration. One specific bill that helped in that goal was the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994, which created harsher sentences and encouraged mass incarceration, something that had been growing steadily since Nixon’s “Law and Order” campaign and Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Crime (5). Congress authorized, through the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal years 1990 and 1991, the transfer of excess DoD property and equipment to federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. Congress then passed the NDAA for fiscal year 1997, which allowed law enforcement agencies to “acquire property for bona fide law enforcement purposes…” (9). Many advocates for this exponential increase of police spending mention the decrease of homicides during the same period. However, over time, police spending increased by 46 percent nationally, outpacing the decrease in crime (10). The Center for Popular Democracy, Law for Black Lives and the Black Youth Project 100 compiled a report that states that crime rates have lessened despite police expenditure on the rise. It argues that “a living wage, access to holistic health services and treatment, educational opportunity, and stable housing are far more successful in reducing crime than police or prisons” (11). Spending per city varies; for instance, New York has the highest “police budget in FY 2017 at $4.89 billion, though this only equates to 8.2 percent of the city’s general fund” while the city of Oakland has the highest “share of its general fund to policing in 2017 at 41 percent” but it was at $242.5 million, substantially less than New York City due to the sheer mammoth size of New York City’s overall budget (12). State and local spending on police, adjusted for inflation, increased from $42 billion in 1977 to $115 billion in 2017 (12).
It is clear that police spending, since Lyndon B Johnson’s call for a War on Crime, has augmented and rather than opposing it, Democrats have folded to support the effort. While violent and property crime has substantially decreased, the budget for police has stayed roughly the same. An important factor when it comes to reviewing spending by local and state governments is the cost of living of the city being evaluated; payroll accounts for nearly two-thirds of all police spending. This means that the higher the cost of living, the higher the payroll and the higher the overall police spending. Which is, as the Urban.org article titled What Police Spending Data Can (and Cannot) Explain amid Calls to Defund the Police rightly assesses, the reason why “New York state spent the most per capita in 2017 ($529) and Kentucky spent the least ($186)” (13). Of course, spending alone cannot tell the full story.
Alongside an increase in police spending has been police militarization. Police militarization is the consequence of “a little noticed but nonetheless momentous historical change–the traditional distinctions between military/police, war/law enforcement, and internal/external security… rapidly blurring” writes Professor and Senior Research Fellow at College of Justice and Strategy, Peter Kraska (14). It is no coincidence that, when Lyndon B. Johnson began this War on Crime snowball in the 1960s, the same era he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he considered the “urban policeman…the ‘frontline soldier’” (6). The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took a note of the trend and led a data-based investigation to corroborate their hypothesis, concluding that “American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight” (15). This was most presently and blatantly seen when the police showed up with riot gear, stun grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas at both the Ferguson Unrest of 2014 as a response to the extrajudicial killing of Michael Brown and to the George Floyd Protests of 2020 as a response to the state-sanctioned killing of George Floyd (16).
In response to this militarization, the Obama administration, in the wake of the 2014 Ferguson Unrest, restricted the kind of weapons police could receive through the 1033 Program, referring to the section that created the military-grade equipment streamlined through the previously mentioned NDAA of 1997. However, an In The Times investigation found that the restriction hadn’t actually restricted much, with the police actually seeing $494 million worth of gear in fiscal year 2016, an increase from the fiscal year prior (17). The investigation notwithstanding, the Trump administration in 2017 overturned that restriction. The Trump administration also overturned “Obama-era practice of investigating police departments and issuing public reports about their failings” (18). It should be noted, however, that the Obama administration policies never went to the root of the problem but merely addressed its symptoms, which, at this point, is not good enough.
While the police are continually militarized, they are also selectively trained. That is, they do not lack training, they are trained, but the training they do receive is selective in nature and focuses on the ‘warrior’ mentality. They are trained but many times, for instance, not in de-escalation tactics. As of 2017, there are 34 states that do not mandate de-escalation training (19). Many large police departments in turn have enforced de-escalation training, with the Dallas Police Department seeing an 18 percent drop in the use-of-force after de-escalation tactics were implemented (20).
Where training is non-existent, however, the consequences are massacres. An example of the result of improper training received by police is present in the gigantic disparity of police killings between people without mental illness and those with mental illness. Touching on this issue, Winston-Salem, North Carolina Police Chief Catrina Thompson addressed peaceful protestors gathering on June 2nd, 2020 as a response to the police killing of George Floyd, saying:
“…as a mother, of not just a black male but a black male with autism who may not be able to respond to an officer telling him to put his hands up because he does not understand that even at 15 years old…I would not stand here in this position and support in any way shape or form anybody in our organization if I believed if they would bring harm to my son or any of you” (21).
Indeed, that constitutes the largest discrepancy of those dying at the hands of police, for someone with mental illness is 16 times more likely to get killed by police (22). 16 times. An example of a blatantly racist training practice received by police officers can be found in North Miami Beach when, in 2015, the police were found using mugshots of Black men as shooting targets. Sargent Valerie Deant, the soldier that found the mugshots hoisted in the shooting range after the police department finished their training, recognized her brother as one of the Black men whose picture was used (23). Injustice by the hands of police is not just based on mental health or race, but also gender and sex. A 2013 Williams Institute survey found that “48 percent of LGBTQ victims of violence reportedly experienced police misconduct” while the US Transgender survey in 2015 found that 58 percent of respondents who interacted with police who knew they were transgender “experienced mistreatment, including verbal harassment, persistent misgendering, physical/sexual assault and being forced to perform sexual acts to avoid arrest” (24). When they do get trained, the ‘warrior’ mindset is often engrained.
Police training reinforces the idea of a ‘warrior’ mindset, emphasizing the hostile and dangerous world around them and, like soldiers, having to always think that “Death…is constantly a single, small misstep away” (25). This again highlights the war/law enforcement line that is continuously being blurred. Here is an excerpt from an article in The Atlantic written by professor of law at the University of South Carolina and a former officer, Seth W. Staughton:
“Officers aren’t just told about the risks they face. They are shown painfully vivid, heart-wrenching dash-cam footage of officers being beaten, disarmed, or gunned down after a moment of inattention or hesitation. They are told that the primary culprit isn’t the felon on the video, it is the officer’s lack of vigilance. And as they listen to the fallen officer’s last, desperate radio calls for help, every cop in the room is thinking exactly the same thing: ‘I won’t ever let that happen to me.’ That’s the point of the training.
More pointed lessons come in the form of hands-on exercises…the lessons are the same: Hesitation can be fatal. So, officers are trained to shoot before a threat is fully realized, to not wait until the last minute because the last minute may be too late” (26).
This is not only shown while you are on the job and training, but also off the job as well, as police officers have websites and social media accounts catered to them. These social media pages and websites often reinforce this idea of a hostile world and officer safety priority, as hundreds of stories are bombarded onto officers, about a colleague being injured or even worse, killed on the job (26). For instance, on the day of June 28, 2020, 3 out of the 5 cover stories on Police Magazine are about an injury or a death of an officer (27). This is most likely the average any day of the week.
Not only is the training police officers receive selective, but it emphasizes the use of what seems to be System 1 cognitive processes or intuitive, reactionary processes, a system of cognitive processes different from System 2 processes, which are more analytical and empirical in nature (28). They are shown and taught to be perpetually afraid, acting on preconceived judgements and biases, as anyone would under pressure. Your coworker may have a racial bias which would lead them to say, nearly mindlessly, something prejudiced about a customer or even about you. However, that same racial bias in a police officer could lead to a disproportionate rate of killings of Black people or a disproportionate rate of stop-and-frisk acts, as in New York where targeting Blacks and Latino/a/xs was commonplace, even though their white counterparts had double the chance of being found with a gun (29) (30). The stop-and-frisk policy was ruled racial profiling (29).
While implicit bias training has gained steam to address this issue, the training itself is often rife with confusion. For instance, questions like “what tests should be used to measure implicit bias” or “how much implicit bias is subconscious and influencing behavior and if it is influencing behavior, to what degree?” are of utmost importance (31). It has also been critiqued on academic grounds (32). Nevertheless, researchers have tried different methods. One of the tests used to measure implicit biases is called Implicit Association Test (IAT). This test among others was used by psychologists at Harvard University to analyze more than four million results of adults who had taken tests for biases pertaining to “sexuality, race, skin tone (in which faces differ in color but not shape), age, disability and body weight” (33). The study found that explicit biases had decreased in all six categories while implicit bias had dropped in sexuality, race and skin tone (33). Many of these biases may have decreased because an increase in widespread societal awareness. However, implicit bias may exist even in those that express strong feelings against prejudice. In a peer-reviewed article titled, “Historical roots of implicit bias in slavery”, the authors write that “one reason for the persistence of implicit bias may be that it is maintained through structural and historical inequalities that change slowly” (32). Even when adjusted for explicit bias, “counties and states more dependent on slavery before the Civil War displayed higher levels of pro-White implicit bias today among White residents and less pro- White bias among Black residents” (32). The scholarly article continues, reading:
“Implicit bias is a distinctly modern conception of prejudice, but it has historical roots that dramatically shift its interpretation. Rather than solely a feature of individual minds, implicit bias may be better understood as a cognitive manifestation of historical and structural inequalities. Practically speaking, these results suggest that in efforts to remediate implicit bias, more attention should be given to modifying social environments as opposed to changing the attitudes of individuals” (32).
In other words, because of implicit bias’s rooted nature in structural inequalities, things that address implicit bias, such as implicit bias training for police, should address the systems and environments that give birth to these biases in the first place rather than tackling the symptoms of the inequalities, implicit bias being one of many. It must be noted, as the article was sure to do so, that the study was not representative of the entire United States population and that the “IAT sample was younger, more racially diverse, and more highly educated than the US population” (32).
Not only can historical structural and systemic inequalities influence bias, but race- or power-based connections can be created from these shared features among individuals. These connections can create groups of authority built from the systemic inequalities innate in broader society in order to perpetuate them. That is to say, the police as an authoritative group and the individuals participating in this group are connected not just by the badge, but also by their biases whose emergence lay in racial inequality and reinforced through the type of police training aforementioned to aid in the conservation of the dynamics that gave them a reason to exist. This is not to say that the police are bad because of their origins. Rather, the origins of the police and the inequalities within race relations in the United States have been shaped in tandem. As such, these inequalities have been influential to the existence of structures of authority, the one in question being the police.
The police in the United States have exhibited different phases, with one of the most prominently noted phases being slave patrols in the South. Starting in South Carolina in 1704, slave patrols had three primary functions: “to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves; to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts; and, lastly to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside of the law, if they violated any plantation rules” (34). Alongside urbanization in the early to mid-1800s was the desire by the capitalist, property-owning class to ensure social control rather than crime control (34). Dr. Gary Potter put it perfectly in an article titled History of Policing in the United States:
“Maintaining a stable and disciplined work force for the developing system of factory production and ensuring a safe and tranquil community for the conduct of commerce required an organized system of social control. The developing profit-based system of production antagonized social tensions in the community. Inequality was increasing rapidly; the exploitation of workers through long hours, dangerous working conditions, and low pay was endemic; and the dominance of local governments by economic elites was creating political unrest. The only effective political strategy available to exploited workers was what economic elites referred to as ‘rioting,’ which was actually a primitive form of what would become union strikes against employers…The modern police force not only provided an organized, centralized body of men (and they were all male) legally authorized to use force to maintain order, it also provided the illusion that this order was being maintained under the rule of law, not at the whim of those with economic power” (34).
The existence, then, of a police force in the United States has both economic and racial dimensions. Indeed, racial capitalism is the name of the game. It is no coincidence that the police are more likely to use deadly force in poorer neighborhoods, who just so happen to be also composed of Black and Brown peoples (35). Capitalism and race go hand-in-hand. One cannot speak about race without talking about capitalism and one cannot talk about capitalism without race. And one most definitely cannot talk about law enforcement in the United States without talking about both.
As police officers grow into their job whose origins lay in power structures like slave patrols, they also become tightknit with their colleagues. Police culture and camaraderie reflect what type of person individual police officers are as well as what type of brotherhood is created via similarities in appearance, thought and police safety. They become very comfortable with one another as any place of work does. In June 2020 in Wilmington, North Carolina, for instance, some got very comfortable. Officer Kevin Piner, Officer Brian Gilmore and Corporal Jessie Moore were all Dred after a video came out of them holding several racist conversations. In a phone call between Officer Piner and Corporal Moore, Corporal Moore referred to a female he had arrested as “negro” and “nigger” on multiple occasions. He also described Magistrate Daniel as “a fucking negro magistrate”. Officer Piner later told Corporal Moore at the police station that he feels like there is a civil war coming and he is ready, saying “we are just going to go out and start fucking slaughtering them fucking niggers. I can’t wait. God, I can’t wait.” In the internal investigation conducted, all of three of them said they were not racists and said that it was the stress of the job and heat of the current political climate that brought such language forth during their venting to their co-workers (36).
Bullshit. Fuck you and your apology.
That, of course, is not the only example of police officers being explicitly racist when they think they will not get caught, especially online (37)(38) (39)(40)(41). In fact, it has gotten so egregious, that a whole website was created, dedicated to spot, and publicize such posts. The Plain Views Project was made specifically for that reason (42).
Before continuing to the function of police pertaining to private prisons in the punitive rather than rehabilitative justice system we have, let us take a deep breath…and summarize. The increase and eventual plateau of police spending, the police being an authoritative force in the United States whose necessity is based on racial capitalism, started with the Lyndon B Johnson War on Crime effort in the 1960s. The increase has also been accompanied by an increase in unchecked police militarization, primarily through federal stream-lining of military style weaponry; amplification of the ‘warrior’ mindset through training and social media; selective police and questionable implicit bias training as well as a toxic, often racist police culture.
Now, on to the private prison system.
The police also function as suppliers to a nefarious demand, that of prisons. It is well known that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Out of those in prison, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), shows that Black males accounted for 34%, white males 29% and Hispanic males 24%. While 2018 saw the lowest rate of imprisonment for Black males since 1989, they still faced a 5.8 times higher rate of incarceration than white males (43).
The history of specifically private prisons is a long one, the first for-profit prison being created in 1852 called San Quentin, which is now managed by the state (44)(45). And even though “private prisons account for a small overall percentage of America’s incarcerated population, they have grown at a disproportionate rate, with an astounding 1600 percent increase in their populations from 1990 to 2005” (46). Shane Bauer, author of American Prison: A Reporters Journey into the Business of Punishment, writes in Time magazine:
“Before founding the Corrections Corporation of America, a $1.8 billion private prison corporation now known as CoreCivic, Terrell Don Hutto ran a cotton plantation the size of Manhattan. There, mostly black convicts were forced to pick cotton from dawn to dusk for no pay. It was 1967 and the Beatles’ ‘All you need is love’ was a hit, but the men in the fields sang songs with lyrics like ‘Old Master don’t you whip me, I’ll give you half a dollar.’ Hutto’s family lived on the plantation and even had a ‘house boy,’ an unpaid convict who served them” (47).
You read that correctly. 1967. Not 1767, not 1867, 1967. So how did the United States go from 1852 San Quentin to 2020 CoreCivic? According to Bauer, prison privatization accelerated after the Civil War based on the same arguments we hear today for the existence of private prisons: prisons are overcrowded and it’d be cheaper and save the government money (47). Prisons are overcrowded today, not just in the United States but in nearly 113 other countries, which reflect often neglected criminal justice reform rather than rising crime rates (48). As for the cost-saving argument, according to a study done by the U.S. BJS, there was little to no evidence that there was any such correlation (45).
Nevertheless, private prisons continued. Convict leasing was an early system of prison labor that existed in mainly Southern United States from 1884 until 1928. Profit came from state-run prisons contracting with private entities to provide them with convict labor (49). Alabama’s profits from convict leasing, between 1880 and 1904, made up 10 percent of the state’s budget (47). States recognized the profit being made so they began to buy up plantations of their own and setting up public prisons, with private prison leasing soon ending. Mississippi was making $600,000 ($14.7 million in 2018 dollars) from prison labor, ten years after abolishing convict leasing (47). Private prisons keep themselves afloat like any capitalist venture. Sean Bryant writes for Investopedia in an article titled The Business Model of Private Prisons the following:
“In order to stay in business, these prisons need a constant stream of inmates coming in to replace those that have served their sentence. This means that laws have to be enforced, contracts renewed, and in some cases, laws more strictly enforced. To do so they have to buy politicians. This process is called lobbying and is often frowned upon” (50).
A report compiled by the Justice Policy Institute found that the two largest for-profit prison companies in the United States — GEO and Corrections Corporation of America — made a combined $2.9 billion in revenue in 2010. “While private prison companies may try to present themselves as just meeting existing ‘demand’ for prison beds and responding to current ‘market’ conditions”, the report reads, “in fact they have worked hard over the past decade to create markets for their product. As revenues of private prison companies have grown over the past decade, the companies have had more resources with which to build political power, and they have used this power to promote policies that lead to higher rates of incarceration” (51).
They have been able to do this through their lobbying power, as the article from Investopedia notes. For instance, GEO was granted a $110 million contract following the hiring of a prior GEO real estate trustee by Marco Rubio, who was then the speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. For his coddling, Marco Rubio has received nearly $40,000 from GEO over his career. This buying out does not only apply to politicians, as this Washington Post article points out:
“With the growing influence of the prison lobby, the nation is, in effect, commoditizing human bodies for an industry in militant pursuit of profit. For instance, privatization created the atmosphere that made the ‘Kids For Cash’ scandal possible, in which two Pennsylvania judges received $2.6 million in kickbacks from for-profit juvenile detention centers for sending more kids to the facilities and with unusually long sentences. The influence of private prisons creates a system that trades money for human freedom, often at the expense of the nation’s most vulnerable populations: children, immigrants and the poor” (52).
With both the justice system and the politicians strapped in, all that the private prison system needs are the executioners: the police. To reiterate, the idea of racial capitalism is important here. Capitalism is based on the accumulation of capital, private property, and the private ownership of the means of production, traits that the United States economy embodies but along racial lines. As a quick aside, Cedric Robinson, professor in the Department of Black Studies and the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara who passed away in 2016, argued that racism within capitalism was not a symptom, but rather a specific characteristic of capitalism, as racial capitalism was dependent on “slavery, violence, imperialism, and genocide” (53). As Robin D. G. Kelley summarizes in an article titled What Did Cedric Robinson Mean by Racial Capitalism?:
“Capitalism was ‘racial’ not because of some conspiracy to divide workers or justify slavery and dispossession, but because racialism had already permeated Western feudal society. The first European proletarians were racial subjects (Irish, Jews, Roma or Gypsies, Slavs, etc.) and they were victims of dispossession (enclosure), colonialism, and slavery within Europe. Indeed, Robinson suggested that racialization within Europe was very much a colonial process involving invasion, settlement, expropriation, and racial hierarchy” (53).
Therefore, rather than seeing this racial divide as a singular, unique condition occurring in the United States, one should be keen to analyze other nations and see along what racial and ethnic lines capitalism has invaded and expanded itself.
The type of justice system the United States has today is punitive in nature, its origins lying in the 1970s push for broader and more encroaching law enforcement. It wasn’t until the 1990s, some 20 years after this push, that any substantive effort was made to have reentry-related life skills programs available for inmates.
The increase in prison population was largely the outcome of policy changes, such as “determinant sentencing…mandatory minimum sentencing laws and abolition of discretionary parole” (54). This progressed alongside a push for more dehumanizing forms of punishment, including the return of chain gangs, tougher penalties for convicted minors, “increased panic and legislation concerning sex and drug-related crimes and an increase in punitive ‘supermax’ facilities” (54). Many scholars agree: there has been a steep increase in the punitive ideal and a decrease in the rehabilitative ideal, with the justice system becoming more punitive and less oriented towards rehabilitation (54). All of this happened alongside the previously mentioned police militarization, police increase in spending and so on and so forth.
The punitive tendency of law enforcement is important to emphasize because it functions well for the economic demand for people labeled as criminals to re-enter prisons rather than keep them out of prison. People with mental illness have suffered nearly the worst. During the 1950s and 60s, new psychotropic drugs were introduced while there was a flourishing of an emphasis on community health but two decades later, while the punitive system was taking hold, people with mental illness began to be instated not in state mental hospitals but into prisons. Indeed, “somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of people in prison are mentally ill” (55). As former prison psychologist Dr. Thomas Fagan says in an article titled Rehabilitate or punish? in the American Psychological Association:
“Prisons have really become, in many ways, the de facto mental health hospitals” (55).
One of the fundamental difficulties between implementing the rehabilitative ideal by having psychologists or other mental health professionals in prisons is that it is antithetical to the very foundations of the current state of law enforcement itself. One cannot try to fix the roof or the walls of a house whose foundations are rotten. One day, no matter how fancy you make that house, you will have to address its crumbling substructure.
The system that is under review is elaborate and its starting points lay in history. Prisons, the police, the political system and the justice system of the United States all have its origins in the chattel slavery economy of the South and the urban-based factories of the North, both of whom reluctantly joined hands after a bloody civil war in the capitalist pursuit for profit and genocidal tendency of white supremacy.
There is no single starting point to this vicious cycle and if a discussion were underway on where this cycle begins, one would quickly fall into the chicken-and-egg problem. Instead, one can analyze the multiple tools (capitalism, race, etc.) that the current system was built upon and continuously utilizes to ensure its existence and produce the consequences that it produces.
Here is a condensed overview of the system discussed, at the risk of falling into the which-came-first problem: Private prisons lobby and support policies that benefit their bottom line: the more prisoners, the higher the return. They serve the supply and demand logic of a capitalist society. In turn, they support candidates running for local and state governments who tout a strong law and order stance, who end up keeping their hands away from federal government military equipment funding that militarize the police. The police, who are aggressive and inept due to the mere nature of their duty to maintain the social and economic order (they protect and serve the State), compounded by their selective training, ‘warrior’ mindset and racism, target marginalized communities (Black peoples, Brown peoples, and people with mental illness being most vulnerable) all at a disproportionate rate, who then face a judge that’s getting kickbacks from private prisons who sends them to prison for unjustifiably long sentences. Those that then fill up the prisons are disproportionately Black and Brown peoples and those with mental illness, little to none of which have accessibility to rehabilitative institutions because the system is a punitive one, not a rehabilitative one.
If this system is so backwards, why does it still exist? It exists because there are people and laws who defend and perpetuate it. In Part II of this 3-Part Essay on the Abolition of Police, I will go over who those people are (‘law-and-order’ politicians, police unions) and the laws that protect this vicious system (qualified immunity, restrictiveness of civilian review boards, the 13th Amendment).