I appreciate this article by Debra Small for many reasons (and not primarily because I am quoted in it).
The main reason that I find it useful and insightful is that Small calls for a reframing & refocusing of the movement to end ‘mass incarceration’ toward one that seeks to end ‘mass criminalization.’ This is something that I have started to do myself particularly in the past couple of years. For example, I recently facilitated a workshop about the criminalization of black girls that sought to address the myriad ways that black girls are funneled through the criminal punishment system (not limited to their incarceration).
These two sections of Small’s article particularly resonated with me:
For me, the problem is in framing the issue as dismantling ‘mass incarceration.’ There’s no disputing that the U.S. incarceration rate is a human rights disaster. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world, except for the island nation of Seychelles. It has become an international embarrassment for the U.S., in much the same way that legal racial segregation was in the 1950s and ‘60s. African Americans learned the hard way that dismantling legal segregation and discrimination was not the same as dismantling racism and the institutions that support it — politically, socially and economically. Similarly, ending the ‘war on drugs’ will not significantly change the circumstances of communities that have been historically victimized by racially biased drug law enforcement. The frame of ending mass incarceration is great for educating people about the consequences of the war on drugs, but the frame we should use to guide policy reform is ending mass criminalization.
Mass incarceration is one outcome of the culture of criminalization. Criminalization includes the expansion of law enforcement and the surveillance state to a broad range of activities and settings: zero tolerance policies in schools that steer children into the criminal justice system; welfare policies that punish poor mothers and force them to work outside of the home; employment practices that require workers to compromise their basic civil liberties as a prerequisite for a job; immigration policies that stigmatize and humiliate people while making it difficult for them to access essential services like health care and housing. These and similar practices too numerous to list fall under the rubric of criminalization.
The whole article is worth your time and consideration. Read it here. When folks are discussing ‘reform,’ we don’t all mean the same thing. I’ll be writing more about this new era of ‘reform’ in the coming weeks and months.