In the midst of social unrest and riots, the discussion about meaningful police reform and criminal justice reform has become more challenging to understand. Not only has the term become a catch-all phrase for everything from improved training to complete abolishment of modern police departments, the ultimate goals of these reforms range from weeding out rogue police officers to radical changes of society’s economic structures. We asked two thought leaders who had previously joined us – Molly Davis from the Libertas Institute and Emily Zislis from Rio on Watch – to discuss what they consider the goals of criminal justice reform to be and how those goals fit into broader societal discussions including race relations and wealth inequality.

“There may be legitimate arguments for re-prioritizing funding among police departments, but they are not going to be abolished…”

Molly Davis, Libertas institute

Criminal justice reform has become somewhat of a trendy phrase as civil unrest continues to materialize across the nation. But there’s substantial disagreement on what it means or how to accomplish real change. I believe the broader goal of criminal justice reform, including policing, should be to prioritize individual rights without compromising public safety. To accomplish this, transparency and accountability of police is pertinent, but these tenets need also apply to every entity of the criminal system.

An example of a tangible policy embodying these principles is not only requiring police to wear body cameras, but also adding penalties when they fail to activate them. Footage is essential in determining facts of individual cases, especially when something goes wrong, and can often protect an officer when they use force that may later be called into question. And when employees of the criminal justice system — police, prosecutors, jail staff, and others — cause damage, they need to be held accountable for their actions through legal action, administrative action, or civil lawsuits depending on the nature. But currently, qualified immunity blocks government actors from being sued, and unions may stand in the way of a department’s ability to fire bad actors. It’s these types of policies that need to be changed first.

While the “defund the police” chants are catchy, it only sends a message of distrust and frustration with policing, further alienating people through politics. There may be legitimate arguments for re-prioritizing funding among police departments, but they’re not going to be abolished like some may hope. 

In order to create meaningful change that helps protect everyone’s rights, including victims of police brutality, specific policy changes are required that keep the public informed and hold government actors accountable for their behavior. Reforms based on these principles will help expose the impacts of racial bias and wealth disparity that are prevalent in the criminal system, and the resulting data will better inform future changes needed to better pursue justice.

“The idea of abolishing police and prisons is fundamentally about re-envisioning society”

Emily Zislis, Rio On Watch

Over the past 200 years, societies across the Americas have been shaped around the idea that police and prisons are equivalent to safety and security. Though movements for the abolition of police and prisons are not new, demands to divest from these forms of punishment have taken on an unprecedented scale in recent weeks. Movements like 8 Can’t Wait in the U.S. known for its focus on proposing steps toward police reform, have now moved further. Abolitionists are urging such movements and the broader public to imagine a world without police or prisons: one in which systems of care and accountability replace punishment and violence. But what would this world look like?

In the U.S., the grassroots abolitionist organization Critical Resistance defines abolition as a political vision that aims to eliminate imprisonment, policing, and surveillance while creating lasting alternatives to punishment and incarceration. As prison abolitionist and scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore points out, “abolition is about presence, not absence. It is about building life-affirming institutions.” Scholar and Critical Resistance co-founder Angela Davis said in a June interview that “abolition is really about rethinking the kind of future we want…it’s about revolution.” For MPD150, a participatory initiative based out of Minneapolis, police abolition means a gradual process of reallocating funding, resources, and responsibility away from police and toward community models of support, safety, and prevention.

The idea of abolishing police and prisons is fundamentally about re-envisioning society. Taking on different forms depending on local contexts, proposals for abolition offer a transnational lens to transformative change. They question current systems of justice and propose alternatives for guaranteeing security and accountability by asking: Does police presence make communities safer? Do prisons make societies safer?

Reform maintains the current system as it stands, which abolitionists contend reinforces a culture of brutality, not security. Common reformist proposals include extensive police training programs and oversight committees, yet these hoped-for improvements can backfire by funneling more money and resources to police without guarantees of change. What may be seen as an alternative, effective, yet still reformist (since it does not do away entirely with the criminal justice system, but instead dramatically reduces it), is the Washington, DC-based Time Dollar Youth Court which ran from 1996-2009 with exceptional success, putting first-time non-violent offenders up before a jury of their peers (former first-time offenders who have gone through the program). Tellingly, TDYC closed due to short-sighted drops in funding, despite it being cheaper than locking youth up and keeping large numbers of youth from prison. Consequently, abolitionists say that envisioning an end to the police and prisons may offer the only promising path to achieve true change – which would entail a complete reconstitution of the justice system.

Read Emily Zislis’ Full Article at