Two Colorado legislators that I know of, Elisabeth Epps and Tim Hernández, declare themselves to be “abolitionists.” Traditionally, that term referred to the abolition of slavery. So what do these legislators mean by the term?
Although Epps has been cagey in defining her position (as I’ve reviewed), abolition in this context refers to opposition to police and prisons. So does Epps literally want to “abolish” all police departments and prisons? That’s unclear.
Here’s how local leftist columnist Quentin Young described abolition in this sense: “While eliminating police and prisons is indeed an eventual objective for many abolitionists, it is inseparable from another goal—to create a community in which police and prisons are essentially obsolete.”
It might occur to you at this point that abolition with respect to the criminal justice system is a utopian fantasy. Some people are just determined to hurt other people or steal their stuff, and we’re not going to stop them by holding hands, singing Kumbaya, and giving them more welfare benefits.
An incoherent message
Still, I agree with Epps that our criminal system is a mess. We incarcerate way too many people, often for stupid reasons, often for far too long, typically in horrific conditions. I have long called for an end to the drug war largely because it is immoral to send armed agents of the state to harass and jail people just for consuming drugs. Epps, on the other hand, opposes the drug war but favors sending heavily armed police agents to jail peaceable gun owners who commit technical violations of arbitrary laws—hypocrisy she has never tried to explain.
Sometimes Epps’s schizophrenic “abolitionist” position leads her to say some bizarre things. Background: Right now the trial for some of Elijah McClain’s killers is proceeding. As 9News summarizes, two officers “are charged with reckless manslaughter and second-degree assault. A third officer and two paramedics, who injected McClain with ketamine, were also indicted and will go to trial later this year.” The trial came about via a grand jury indictment.
As I have argued, local District Attorneys often are reluctant to prosecute police officers in their districts, as the DA’s office of necessity works closely with the police to prosecute cases. This creates an obvious conflict of interest. I suggested that we might want to send all such prosecutions “to a new semi-autonomous office devoted to such cases under the Attorney General.”
To me, an integral part of the criminal justice system is holding police accountable when they commit crimes. It is not at all clear that Epps agrees with this. When someone on Twitter suggested greater use of special prosecutors and grand juries to handle cases of potential criminal conduct by police officers, Epps replied, “No grand juries—ever. No special prosecutors—we do not trust them. We’ve been through this. No more reformist reforms—period. These are moments that require us to reject superficial carceral reshuffling. There is nothing logical about asking cops to fix cops. Resist!”
Holding cops accountable for killing Elijah McClain is just. No, it doesn’t bring him back. But it does reinforce proper standards. To me, generally holding officers accountable when they commit violent or other serious crimes is essential to a well-functioning criminal justice system. To Epps, apparently, it is just another manifestation of the inherently corrupt justice system. Epps also said, “Prosecuting cops is a [sic] not a step on the road to liberation.” But we will never be “liberated” from the need for a criminal justice system. What we can do is make it actually just—but Epps has made clear she will stand in the way of that goal in important ways.
I’m not sure whether Hernández agrees with Epps about grand juries and special prosecutors, but apparently he’s all for prosecutors charging police officers with crimes. He wrote, “Jor’Dell Richardson’s classmates, family, and community asked yesterday for accountability from DA John Kellner, who pressed no charges against the offers who murdered Jor’Dell, and for [interim police chief Art Acevedo] to resign for lying to the family about his death for 9 days. They both said no.”
Hernández and I agree that DAs (and I would add special prosecutors in some contexts) should prosecute police officers when they commit a crime. However, I doubt that the officer who killed Richardson committed a crime. Indeed, I think Hernández is irresponsible to call this a “murder” (something Hernández’s fellow socialist legislator Javier Mabrey also did). This death was a horrible tragedy, yet one brought about by Richardson committing armed robbery with a pellet gun that looks like a standard pistol, then running from police. Mabrey’s claim that Richardson was “unarmed” is extremely misleading.
In the case of McClain, police clearly had no proper business detaining him, much less assaulting him to the point of death. In the case of Richardson, police clearly did have good reason to pursue and detain the boy (he was only 14), who obviously had just committed a serious crime. Unfortunately, some “abolitionists” blindly condemn the police no matter what they do, regardless of the facts of a specific case.
Epps also said something peculiar about the January 6 Capitol invasion: “Jan. 6 was of course very bad, a big deal. But the imposed sentences are far out of proportion. It’s disturbing watching Dems cheer state violence.” The longest sentence handed out was 22 years, for seditious conspiracy. My take is that the invasion was an extremely serious crime—a violent assault on the heart of our government—and that long sentences for the worst offenders are warranted. Someone on Twitter asked Epps, “What is a reasonable punishment for a group of traitors intent on overthrowing a presidential election?” Epps answered, incoherently, “No.”
We can argue about appropriate lengths of prison sentences for various crimes. But Epps seems to be throwing any government response into the “state violence” category. This ignores the clear difference between initiatory violence and defensive force. When people commit violent crimes, part of what we do is authorize government to act on our behalf to bring those people to justice.
In the end, it seems that what Epps wants to “abolish” is accountability for violent criminals. Let’s hope her colleagues in the legislature at the same time listen to her legitimate complaints about the criminal justice system and reject her utopian nonsense.
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.
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