It’s been 15 months since unarmed African American adolescent Michael Brown was killed by White Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson and the Lost Voices of Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter social justice movement forced national attention on America’s broken criminal justice system. Black Lives Matter continues to inspire numerous long-overdue social justice debates over public safety and criminal justice. In Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003), Angela Davis cautioned about the rhetoric of “reform”:
“Debates about strategies of decarceration, which should be the focal point of our conversations on the prison crisis, tend to be marginalized when reform takes the center stage.”
Professor Davis goes on to ask,
“How can we take seriously strategies of restorative rather than exclusively punitive justice?”
In light of Davis’s comments, the October 20th announcement by the police chiefs of major urban cities urging a reduction in incarcerations and arrests definitely got my attention. Historically, police organizations have vehemently opposed such policies. Speaking as co-chair of the national Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, Chicago Police Chief Garry F. McCarthy reflectively shared,
“After all the years I’ve been doing this work, I ask myself, ‘What is a crime, and what does the community want?’ When we’re arresting people for low-level offenses — narcotics — I’m not sure we’re achieving what we’ve set out to do. The system of criminal justice is not supporting what the community wants.”
Like a post-structuralist, McCarthy found himself deconstructing the concept of crime and public safety. McCarthy’s reflection on “what is a crime?” captures what is understated in Diversity and Education:
“Worldviews differ on interpretations of what constitutes a crime and a just punishment.”
In their statement the police chiefs acknowledged the problem of arrests and incarceration of people who clearly need access to mental health services – rather than simply being thrown into jails and prisons. Yet, these police leaders left unanswered as to how funding would shift from incarceration to mental health services. Since the era of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, the U.S. has continued to reduce social services for the mentally ill. Instead, we’ve witnessed a growth of mentally-challenged individuals being homeless or incarcerated.
Besides the lack of publicly-funded mental health services to meet the reform aim of McCarthy and his organization, the growth of what Davis named as the prison-industrial complex must be addressed politically. In essence, the prison-industrial complex is where individuals profit off of incarceration. While McCarthy and the other police chiefs addressed the exorbitant cost to the public of incarceration, they are silent on the huge political clout that the for-profit prison industry holds over politicians in state and federal legislatures. That debate is yet to happen in a conservative political climate where mainstream economic policies continue to privilege profit over publicly-funded social services.