Who guards the guardians? Who watches the watchers? Who polices the police? These are classic problems of power. We need to assign people to help keep us safe from those who would do us harm, and we also need to remain safe from those people.
Some people observe the problem of holding people with power in check, then throw up their hands and declare no one should have that responsibility. Last year, I discussed today’s “abolitionists” who work to cancel rather than merely reform key institutions of criminal justice, including police and prisons. (However, at least some “abolitionists” are perfectly happy to send heavily armed government agents after peaceable people who violate arbitrary gun laws.) As for the sensibility of appropriating the term Abolition from those who ended slavery for the movement to end police and prisons, I leave to the reader to judge.
If we did away with police and prisons, who then would protect people from violent criminals? Here the “abolitionists” offer the pleasing fairy tale that all violent crime is a product of “the system” and would go away if only we spent enough tax dollars on cradle-to-grave welfare benefits and dismantled “oppressive” capitalist systems. You are not imagining things if you detect a link between these “abolitionists” and the classic Marxists, who sought to create a “New Man.”
The reality-oriented view is that some people choose to do evil things, so we always will need institutions and sanctioned individuals (police) to help protect us from violence.
The “abolitionists” are partly right, though. Children who grow up without proper care are more likely to turn to crime. When government strips people of their ability to earn a living, some people will give up hope and turn to gangs or the like. Historically, police often have perpetrated rather than stopped injustices, often at the bidding of morally corrupt legislatures.
If you are not deeply skeptical of American institutions of criminal justice as they now exist, you are either biased or just not paying attention. But we ought not throw out the crime-preventing policing baby with the tainted criminal-justice bathwater. We need to seriously reform police and prisons—along with criminal prosecutions—not get rid of them.
In some ways, the “abolitionists” stand in the way of sensible reform. If police and prisons are fundamentally corrupt and beyond saving, then any effort at reform is doomed. From the “abolitionist” point of view, trying to reform the criminal justice system is like trying to reform slavery. You can’t fix something that is basically evil. Of course, “abolitionists” do not fully believe their own nonsense, and so they do often work toward sensible reforms. Yet at root reform is fundamentally at odds with abolition. “Abolitionists,” when they do pursue reform, tend to do so in a half-hearted and pessimistic way.
Contra the “abolitionists,” criminal justice reform is possible and morally necessary. We can work incrementally toward a system that is consistently just and fair and that preserves individual safety and the public peace.
Here are some of the key ideas:
* Repeal laws that make legal crimes out of non-rights violating behavior. We’ve already made a lot of progress along these lines, as by repealing laws against gay sex, but we have a long way to go. (“Abolitionists” criminalizing non-rights-violating gun ownership is a step in the wrong direction.)
* Bring back a vibrant jury system by fixing plea bargains, by which prosecutors often bully people to plead guilty whether or not they are guilty, and which often result in unjustly long prison sentences.
* Hire good people as police, give them excellent training and support, and hold them fully accountable criminally and civilly if they violate people’s rights. Colorado has made some good progress along these lines, but we need to do far more. Officers who senselessly killed Christian Glass have been indicted, but why were such obviously ill-suited people ever hired for the job in the first place? Another problem: the Institute for Justice gives Colorado a “C” for its civil forfeiture laws, and a recent reform bill was gutted.
* We need to totally remake jails and prisons such that they promote rehabilitation and emotional healing rather than further traumatize people and serve as graduate programs in criminal behavior. One thing we need to do is end lengthy solitary confinement, which is a form of torture. Read Tatiana Flowers’s excellent article on this matter.
Policing done right is important and virtuous work. But, still, far too often police and prosecutors, often abetted by legislators more interested in their image than in justice, violate rather than protect people’s rights. We can and must do better.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
Our unofficial motto at Complete Colorado is “Always free, never fake, ” but annoyingly enough, our reporters, columnists and staff all want to be paid in actual US dollars rather than our preferred currency of pats on the back and a muttered kind word. Fact is that there’s an entire staff working every day to bring you the most timely and relevant political news (updated twice daily) from around the state on Complete’s main page aggregator, as well as top-notch original reporting and commentary on Page Two.
CLICK HERE TO LADLE A LITTLE GRAVY ON THE CREW AT COMPLETE COLORADO. You’ll be giving to the Independence Institute, the not-for-profit publisher of Complete Colorado, which makes your donation tax deductible. But rest assured that your giving will go specifically to the Complete Colorado news operation. Thanks for being a Complete Colorado reader, keep coming back.