The natural question that emerges when one brings up prison abolition is: what would we do about violent crime and similar rights violations? I have several answers to this question.
The first is that I don’t fully know. A free society would involve a diversity of institutions emerging and a market discovery process going on along with various decentralized democratic community experiments, so there’s not going to be one philosopher or economist that predicts in full what’s likely to happen.
That said, I have a pretty strong preference towards moving from criminal law towards civil or tort law, and away from punishment towards restitution.The advantage of civil law over criminal law is that the goal is compensating the victims of crimes and abuses and having that payment serve as a way of holding perpetrators of abuse accountable. This means that addressing harm is the key issue, rather than simply punishing those who violate the commands of the state. Economist and legal scholar David Friedman has done lots of great work on what a society based on purely civil law might look like. For example, I highly recommend this video, where he discusses abolishing criminal law.
The next point is that we see some examples of what prison abolitionist approaches to crime might look like already, because marginalized communities are actively oppressed by and underserved by the criminal justice system. People of color, transgender people, sex workers, immigrants, and sexual assault survivors are all often poorly served or actively oppressed by the criminal justice system. As such, many of them have built up alternatives to the system for dealing with the abuse and violence they suffer. One good example of this is the Audre Lorde Project’s Safe OUTside the System Collective in New York. Victoria Law discusses a few more such examples in her video Resisting Gender Violence Without Cops or Prisons. Still more examples are discussed in Rose City Copwatch’s zine Alternatives to the Police.
The state’s prisons and police do not effectively deal with violence and abuse – they perpetrate violence and abuse. As Dean Spade puts it, “The prison is the serial killer, the prison is the serial rapist.” Recent reports of rampant sexual violence against inmates in prisons like Alabama’s Tutwiler Prison for Women highlight this horrible truth. We must seek to abolish this systemic aggression. But those of us who seek to abolish the state’s systemic violence should also consider how to craft better institutions to defend from the violence the state purports to protect us from.