“What will secure us is embracing an abolitionist imagination that forces us beyond the posture of reform and dares us to imagine a world of new possibilities.” —Marc Lamont Hill

The prolific conversations and debates around improving public safety and the criminal legal system have brought two major approaches into routine public discourse: To reform the system or to abolish it. While these approaches are different—reformers generally seek to make improvements within the current system, and abolitionists generally seek to do away with the current system in favor of other solutions—a lack of understanding about these approaches has caused confusion and added to the public debate on what to do about the problems at hand. The “defund police” movement provides an example of this confusion. Some people understand the phrase to mean that police agencies would be done away with entirely. Others believe that law enforcement agency budgets would only be made smaller, but the agencies would be left intact with resources redistributed to agencies better suited to handle crises, mental and substance-use-related concerns, and community disputes.

The opportunity of this moment is to engage people’s imaginations and consider what might be possible if we did embrace what abolitionists are recommending. Activating the abolitionist imagination may begin by acknowledging that the criminal legal system and the agencies that represent it and the laws and policies by which they operate were all intentionally crafted to produce the outcomes that we see today. The first policing agencies were, in fact, slave patrols designed to control enslaved human beings that white people considered to be property. One could ask if the enslavement of humans had not contributed to the creation of “law enforcement” patrols, how might have the public safety system been created instead? In the centuries following, slave patrols evolved and were replicated as policing agencies across the United States. Despite advancements in expanding civil rights, the criminal legal system has been used to uphold the priorities and property of the dominant white culture. One could ask, what is the wisdom in resisting change, considering the irreparable harm and deaths still happening to people and communities of color as reforms are slow to take and difficult to sustain?

Reform within the current criminal legal system is difficult without the buy-in of all stakeholders—county and city managers, county and city commissioners, sheriffs, police chiefs, district attorneys, public defenders, chief judges, chief magistrates, community correction chiefs, etc. Cultivating buy-in requires developing relationships; providing training, education, and equipment; and sometimes providing evaluation services, only to have the reform effort completely jeopardized if and when a stakeholder moves, retires, loses an election, or is appointed elsewhere. Regardless of memorandums of understanding and funding streams, criminal legal system reforms are extremely sensitive to the personalities of the stakeholders who run government bureaucracies. Reforms also require a specific focus on the centrality of race and racism as the fundamental driver of disparate outcomes. Many jurisdictions and programs struggle to develop this focus due to misconceptions driven by color-blind racial ideology and funding that prioritizes system-wide improvements (e.g., bail reform), which often result in benefitting the dominant culture the most. Also, critically lacking in reform efforts is an ability to both balance the immediate priorities and needs of communities of color while also engaging in a long-term shift of power where the community is able to form and sustain what it needs to ensure the safety and wellness of its residents rather than relying on dominant-culture programs and institutions to its own detriment.

Another issue that reformers have failed to address is the fact that true, lasting reform requires a permanent change to government bureaucracy; and, research shows that bureaucracies typically do not shrink; they expand. There is nothing in the mechanism of a bureaucracy that allows it to share or give away power or control. Bureaucracies are infamous for their ability to “outlive their real usefulness” (Downs, 1967). An entire body of research on public bureaucracy, which could provide reformers with more information about the challenges they are up against, is completely missing from the various approaches to reforming the criminal legal system. The approaches themselves lack standardization, evidence base, and inclusion of input from non-dominant cultures.

This points us to the essential need to move towards an abolitionist imagination.

The abolitionist imagination takes us to places like Eugene, Oregon, where mental health clinicians have responded directly to 911 calls, unaccompanied by police, for decades without harm coming to those clinicians. In fact the abolitionist imagination allows for a full embrace of the public-health approach for all medical conditions, whether it’s an abscessed tooth, a drug addiction, or a heart condition. For the abolitionist, treating a person experiencing drug addiction rather than criminalizing them is the key to reducing drug distribution, use, and drug-related violence.

The abolitionist imagination takes us to the year 2020, when, in service of their own interests, states and counties moved to decarcerate thousands of people from pretrial detention or a sentence of incarceration. Early estimates show no related increases in crime due to jail population reductions.[1] The truth being that incarceration is overutilized in the United States; decades ago, the nation exceeded the threshold of effectiveness in its use of incarceration as a deterrent for future criminal activity. We know that people can safely remain in their homes and the community while awaiting their trial. For those convicted of an offense, many do not need to serve a sentence of incarceration to achieve “rehabilitation,” a subjective and perfunctory objective of correctional facilities that is not often met considering current recidivism rates.

The abolitionist imagination takes us to a time before the United States criminal legal system existed and Indigenous people resolved incidents of community harm in more person-centered, spiritual, and/or holistic ways; in many places, they still do. There are effective ways to maintain whole and healthy communities that don’t rely on the criminal legal system as shaped by dominant white culture. There are ways to hold people accountable for their actions that do not isolate them from their families or support systems, expose them to inhumane conditions, or otherwise disconnect them from positive supports, such as housing, education, and medical treatment.

The abolitionist imagination takes us to other countries and cultures where punishment for convictions still honors human dignity; provides an opportunity for recovery, education, and advancement; and provides people with human-centered, quality care.

Finally, the abolitionist imagination takes us into the communities and homes of people who have been most impacted by the current criminal legal system, who bear the physical and emotional scars of survival, and gives them the voice and leadership to guide us on a better path. The people and communities most impacted by the current system have always known what is needed to improve not just the criminal legal system but society as a whole.

Creating structures that foster true safety, well-being, and unity across our communities will require a shift of power away from government bureaucracies back to people and neighborhoods. Such a realignment of power will require us to embrace the abolition of aspects of our current criminal legal system. What that looks like, no one really knows; but we can and must imagine.


[1] ACLU Analytics, 2020. Decarceration and Crime During COVID-19. Accessed 7/13/21 at https://www.aclu.org/news/smart-justice/decarceration-and-crime-during-covid-19/.