Our justice system is changing. Sentencing laws are being redefined, lessened, or eliminated altogether all over the country. Washington state prisons have lessened their inmate population by over 20% since I’ve been in. Just a few years ago the prisons were bursting at the seams with nearly 20,000 inmates statewide, today we’re just above 15,000 (for exact numbers visit doc.wa.gov). While the pandemic has deeply impacted the prison system it’s not the reason for a population reduction, it was the excuse.

Abolitionists aren’t satisfied with the changes because they aren’t enough. Abolitionists want changes to justice as a whole, how we *do* justice, not just how we interpret it. Community led rehabilitation is the primary goal for many abolitionists and while the recent changes aren’t enough, they are a step in the right direction. The recent reduction also makes way for prison reformists, which differ from abolitionists. Reformers still accept some sort of incarceration to administer justice but that justice is rehabilitative centered. Abolitionists want the carceral state ended entirely.

What I think is that Americans want something different too. Eliminating prisons is too extreme, right now. But changing the structure of prisons to be more effective with the goal of reducing the population to near zero or to zero because of its efficacy rate is a pill I think the American population can swallow rather easily. Most every family in America has a loved one with a felony conviction. Koch researchers have stated that there are an estimated 70-100 million convicted felons alive today in the US. That’s a staggering number considering that’s nearly 1/3 of our entire population.

That’s 1/3 of us who can’t vote, go certain places, work in certain sectors, live in certain areas etc. 1/3 who are ‘other’. At this rate felons will be the majority class in the US, once that happens our Democracy could be in trouble as year over year the social classes get further apart with elitist numbers on one end getting smaller and smaller and felons on the other growing bigger and bigger. While that sounds dramatic, admittedly, it’s why many countries in the world today are in civil war.

When we abolitionists, reformers, and the rest of the American public work together we can produce something magnificent and I believe the time is now, were all ripe for change. It’s time to reinvent ourselves to be more effective in how we administer justice. Just imagine with me for a moment if we allowed reformists ideals to flourish. Education in our justice system would explode, corrections officers would become educators and most would have to find new careers (thank God), rehabilitation programs would lean more and more on the community and general public. Our government would rely heavily on community led programs and volunteers to engage in the prison system while retaining a space for the old so we still have an answer for the question “What do we do with the criminals who are pure evil, incapable of change?”. Over time this makes way for a more abolitionist approach.

But nothing happens overnight. This is thinking beyond our politicians and around then. Political careers are waged against short-term solutions which has led us to some tumultuous policies, prisons being the biggest victim of such short sightedness not knowing how to view the incarcerated, “Are they animals to dominate into submission or are they humans who need correction. Am I a lion tamer or a human sitter?”. The result has been what we see today. This new approach bypasses all that.

Just thinking out loud. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

With Love
Ruth Utnage