Beyond the Carceral Logic of Civil Commitment

Over the last few years, calls for prison and policing reform have surfaced in diverse arenas. As #BlackLivesMatter telegraphed the racialized violence of policing, presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton was compelled to explain her role in the passage of the “tough on crime” 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act that helped build the world’s largest carceral, or punitive state. Criminal justice reform is in the air. Republican New Gingrich argued for (some) sentencing reform while Barack Obama became the first sitting President to visit a federal prison.

Yet, if history teaches us anything, reforms—to release the “non violent” offenders, to recruit more women to be police officers, to create prisons expressly for juveniles or the mentally ill, or to install surveillance cameras on police cars—often expand, not contract, our prison nation. These reforms also suggest that with these tweaks current institutions could function as the basis for a fair and just world. Yet we know that our expanding “law and order” systems—longer sentences, enhanced criminalization, super maximum prisons—have never produced public safety for all, though many of us accept them as the only mechanisms available.

For many, this abolition politics, or shrinking and transforming the carceral sphere seems daunting. How to imagine public safety outside of policing? How to feel safe without prisons or surveillance cameras or public sex offender registries?

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