† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
Conservative Criminal Justice Reform, A Look Through the Distorted Fun House Mirror
by nancy a heitzeg, occasionally aided and abetted by Kay Whitlock
This week was awash in news of “criminal justice reform”. Some of these news items sparked real hope: efforts on the part of NY Governor Cuomo to budget for college classes for inmates, escalated calls for an end to mandatory minimums and solitary confinement, and news that President Obama is planning to extend pardons to “hundreds, if not thousands” of non-violent offenders before he leaves office.
Occasionally billed as a “bipartisan” issue, the main thrust of most coverage, however, was on “conservative calls for criminal justice reform”. The Conservative Political Action Conference with Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Jeb Bush, Grover Norquist, highlighted the issue, Chris Christie weighs in, and now even the Koch Brothers get in on the action with a panel billed as “uniting left and right” and the “GOP’s best hope to reach minority voters”.
What has long been an under-current of right-wing policy advocacy is now emerging as a centerpiece of the upcoming 2014 and 2016 election seasons. The immediate image is of a kinder gentler non-obstructionist GOP who will continue to combat big government, reduce mass incarceration, and save taxpayers even $$$. A “reasonable” approach that capitalizes on a public opinion that increasingly rejects the War on Drugs and mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent offenders. An approach that presents Red States as the leaders in a reform movement that is “smart on crime”.
Look again. It is a view from a distorting Fun House Mirror, another carnival sideshow that masks the reality of the “Right on Crime” agenda, which is most simply, more privatization. Privatization ensures that any possibility for public accountability vanishes. Further privatization of criminal justice serves to pave the way for expanded privatization of other public programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, education, food and nutrition assistance, and so on. Expect more of this in the upcoming months and years ahead.
Criminal InJustice has been exposing the under-lying agenda of the conservative calls for “reform” for quite some time. We will continue to do so in more detail. For now, please, if you can, revisit:
- Faith, Profit and Prisons
- Confidence Men & “Prison Reform”
- Con Artists, Profit and Community Corrections
- Smoke and Mirrors?
We hope you will continue to ask the hard questions with us as calls for conservative criminal justice reform intensify.
There will be deceptive appeals that seem reasonable until the surface is scratched. Overcriminalization doesn’t mean what you think it does here. It is the new Right on Crime code for deregulation of corporate and business activities: “Stop creating new criminal offenses as a method of regulating business activities. Regulation is better handled through fines and market forces, not the heavy stigma of criminal sanctions.” Under-girding this is a rejection of Federal authority and an explicit call for state’s rights.
There will be calls for more ‘reforms” in Adult Probation and Parole and Re-entry, but rather than a reduction in correctional populations, these will involve an expansion of control via new-found profiteering in community corrections, offender re-entry programs, drug testing and an expanded array of monitoring technology. Juvenile Justice “reform” will not involve decarceration, instead, faith-based sometimes for profit group homes will replace larger correctional facilities. Substance Abuse will be addressed via “tough love” net-widening drug courts, which will rely heavily on testing, screening and monitoring. “Public safety” and Victims remain centered with new calls for increased victim access to offender funds. And surprise, surprise, Law Enforcement and Prisons are encouraged to privatize, in defiance of the evidence that this magnifies racial disparity and abuse.
There will be “unexpected alliances” (see the NAACP) designed to provide cover; “bipartisan” support; misleading numbers – sometimes manipulated by law enforcement to show declines in crime, sometimes supplied by once trusted foundations such as PEW and the Annie E. Casey Foundation to document program “success”; and a host of non-profits ready to form alliances with the right-wing for political/potential economic support of their work and immediate short term goals (see FAMM and EJUSA). These alliances are promoted as “breaking through the polarization.” But it is not “polarization” to insist that dismantling the structural violence of the criminal legal system – whether through abolishing the death penalty or getting rid of mandatory minimum sentencing or wholesale abolition of the prison industrial complex – requires more than noticing “racial disparities.” Paying attention to, talking about, and confronting the interdependent political, economic, and cultural factors that criminalize people of color and poor people is an essential part of any meaningful transformation of the American criminal legal system. Dismantling structural racism and class violence is not reform: it’s wholesale transformation, and that’s not on conservative/right agendas.
What is new now to the discussion is the belated attempt on the part of conservations to acknowledge racial disparities in mass incarceration, a subject that was previously ignored. In a calculated effort to expand their demographic reach beyond bitter white people, race becomes noted. Of course, none of this involves a critique of structural racism in the creation, proliferation and maintenance of the prison industrial complex, but it will – trust me — be fine-tuned over time into a call for “personal responsibility”, respectability politics, and ultimately, further conflation of Blackness with crime as conservative reforms will ultimately further magnify racial disparity. Nor does it acknowledge the extreme irony of state’s rights supporters of Stand Your Ground, the opponents of the 14th Amendment, the Voting Rights Act and more making coded appeals to the Black vote they are simultaneously attempting to suppress.
There will be co-optation, and many, eager for any sign of relief after 40 years in the mass incarceration desert, will be ready to support anything that looks like “reform”. The urge to embrace superficially sane-sounding criminal justice reforms is understandable. The era of mass incarceration must end.
But please do not be tempted to support policies that seem “reasonable” in the short-run, but in the end make the prison industrial complex even more entrenched with new avenues for profiteering, and new color-blind policies that magnify racial disparity. Make no mistake any attempt at “reforming” criminal injustice must take account of its roots in white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, must propose remedies that address that roles that race class gender play in the both the creation and operation of the prison industrial complex, must ask hard questions about the purported need for extensive of control of any sort for the vast majority of those criminalized.
Nothing less. And so much more.
Or we will be forty years on asking again: how was it possible we ever thought that the Master’s Tools could – somehow?? – Dismantle the Master’s very own House???