You, Me, and All the Superpredators We Know
What we talk about when we talk about “Criminal” “Justice” “Reform”
“You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter. Tell the truth.” — Bill Clinton to protestors, April 7, 2016
In recent years there’s been a fresh reawakening regarding criminal justice reform and what that should look like. We realize that there’s a problem, the nation seems at least somewhat willing to pay lip service to finding solutions for digging ourselves out of a nadir that finds over 2.2 million Americans behind bars on any given day and millions more under correctional control. The phrase “criminal justice reform” is on the tongues of our presidential candidates and some appear suddenly interested in scaling back the disastrous effects (which they are partially responsible for — yes, even your pals Bernie and Hillary) that come with federal mandatory minimums, capital punishment expansion, the war on drugs, three strikes legislation, and a burgeoning prison-industrial complex that have ballooned incarceration and decimated communities of color since the 1970s.
All of this coalesces every four years during our presidential elections as they become talking points at countless fundraisers and rallies, such as the one former President Bill Clinton spoke at last week in Philadelphia on behalf of his wife.
On the small stage, Clinton defended the 1994 crime bill and 1996 welfare reform bills he signed into law, as well as Hillary’s steadfast support of them at the time, when she famously used the coded language of “superpredators” to describe the black youth the crime bill was meant to protect us from. In a hoarse exchange with protestors, he dismissed their concerns about how those bills helped eliminate important safety nets for the poor while locking up hundreds of thousands of people from black and brown communities. And while most prisoners are incarcerated in state prisons, his administration led the way in advocating for harsher sentencing nationwide in the 1990s.
His rationale? At the end of the day, the intentions were pure. It’s a shame those laws and attitudes were destructive to the black men and women he was now counting on for votes, but what’s a president to do? He implored the activists, who were frustrated by how talk of the Democratic Party’s supposedly good intentions has usurped discussion about the effects of abusive policy they’ve advocated, to “tell the truth”.
Okay, fine. Let’s begin then.
When Hillary, Bernie, you, me, and my barber talk about criminal justice reform, there’s so much that we talk around. Between the fear-mongering inherent in “tough on crime” platforms to your friend’s search for cookies or guilt assuagement via Facebook statuses draped in performative wokeness, our ulterior motive tends to be the advancement of a particular strain of party politics and political branding. There’s a whole lot of lying and a whole lot of failing to reckon with the root problems. We mask our lying and failures by assigning the feel-good label of “good intentions” to excuse destructive consequences. But painting manure gold doesn’t mean we’ve got a magic cow. It means we’re spinning lies and we’re spinning those lies in order to salvage our own notion of innocence. Our greatest fear isn’t that maybe our favorite candidate may have had a hand in accelerating mass incarceration, it’s that our own fears make us complicit in why these policies continue today. And the way that fear materializes erases millions of people not just from talking but from being talked about as anything other than a “criminal”.
So let’s unpack the language of “criminal” “justice” reform”.
“Criminal”. From the outset, we label millions of people (mostly of color) as criminals. We stamp them with a mark of dehumanization that stigmatizes their character and follows them, like a leering shadow, on job applications, voting roll records, and interpersonal relationships. We fear them and accept that they are less than without thinking outside the box (literally).
But who are these “criminals”? These “superpredators”? Who bears the weight of our mythologizing when we decide that “tough on crime” is what we want to be?
They include 731,000 individuals who are detained in jail, 60% of whom have not been convicted of anything and are merely too poor to post bail or bond. We’ve criminalized poverty. In New York City alone, blacks are jailed at 12 times the rate and Latinos at five times the rate of whites. We’ve criminalized melanin. In the United States, the three largest psychiatric institutions are jails (Rikers Island, LA County and Cook County). We’ve criminalized mental illness. Our criminal justice system continues to imprison drug users for succumbing to their diseases. We’ve criminalized addiction.
The United States alone is responsible for over 22% of the world’s prison population. We’ve criminalized…a whole lot of people.
We’re lying when we fail to comprehend how the people we lock up exist at an intersectionality of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, class, and immigration status. We can‘t front like our most vulnerable — undocumented individuals, homeless men and women, trans people of color, and gender non-conforming youth, to name a few — are the most likely to get caught up in this system and sustain violence within its walls from both inmates and correctional officers.
Most importantly, since we’re so caught up in the lie, we fail to even consider the social construction of the notion of legality and how it affects those behind bars. Criminal codes differ across eras and borders. Policing of crime is often racially enforced against people of color. These facts bely the idea that the makeup of our prisons is a natural product rather than a political choice. Thus, are we able to take a step back and consider the ways in which legality is an arbitrary byproduct of our society’s political values? Crime as we know it ranges from victimless, societal taboos from which illegality is politically motivated to actual, horrific violence that causes real pain and trauma. Can we point out the lunacy of the former, support and provide recourse for the victims of the latter, and still uphold the dignity of the perpetrators? And if we are willing to entertain all of this, how does this then provide us with a blueprint to viewing the ways so many so-called “superpredators” are merely political prisoners caught up in a maelstrom of special interests, political capital, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy? It’s a challenge to embrace a pursuit of transformative justice that asks us to think past our knee-jerk conditioning of what makes up a “criminal” but the real challenge comes when we ask, “What must we believe about a person to think that their incarceration is acceptable?”
“Justice”. We hold the word justice on a pedestal, unaware that our normative conception of “justice” is dominated by a punishment economy dependent on incarceration. But is justice a cage? Is justice a siphoning off? Does it even dwell in punishment?
I shudder to think that maybe, just maybe, the true way we’ve been upholding “justice” for incarcerated people verges on solipsism. We value a false sense of security from “them” more than we care about restorative justice for the undercaste we’ve created. In New York City, we have an entire island out on the East River committed to ten separate jail facilities. We’ve chosen our solution and it is “out of sight, out of mind.”
So again we’re up against a challenge, the confines of tradition, the Overton window cracked open just enough to let a few beams of light into a drafty, overcrowded jail cell. As Angela Davis wrote in her recent book, Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement,
“We have to learn how to think and act and struggle against that which is ideologically constituted as ‘normal.’ Prisons are constituted as ‘normal.’ It takes a lot of work to persuade people to think beyond the bars, and to be able to imagine a world without prisons and to struggle for the abolition of imprisonment as the dominant mode of punishment.”
It could be a pipe dream but I would hope that we aren’t so unimaginative that we can only think of carceral solutions to our problems. Transformative justice offers the possibility of liberation, our current iteration of “justice” is only vigilant about its continued viability.
So what does the justice I seek look like and how can we challenge our atrophied imaginations to think of justice as separate from incarceration? Real, transformative justice, which includes economic and racial justice, is reckoning with physical, emotional, and sexual violence and providing the resources to combat harm before it begins.
To do this, we have to commit ourselves to pursuing an ethic steeped in love, compassion, and mercy for incarcerated individuals along with the people they’ve abused. It means committing ourselves to quelling interpersonal violence in our own lives, particularly of the kind that goes on unabated by law enforcement and that leaves our own eyebrows unraised.
We can stop parading our good intentions, making ourselves comfortable with laws and statutes that are facially race neutral. Good intentions that result in a grim reality where black male babies born ten years ago have a 1 in 3 chance of ending up behind bars in their lifetimes or where black and Hispanic women are the fastest growing population in prisons and jails today are not good intentions. They are purposeful diversions from accountability and, more importantly, remedy.
Flipping this script means investing more in providing meaningful employment opportunities, fair and available public housing in our cities, and an investment in public education that fosters mental and emotional growth rather than funneling children through a school-to-prison pipeline or bulldozing teachers unions in the interest of neoliberal organizations of untrained, fresh-out-of-college poverty tourists. Instead of investing our money into building more prisons and sustaining a dehumanizing status quo, flipping the script means devoting funds to alternatives to incarceration, diversion programs, mental health and substance abuse services, and sufficient reentry programs for inmates. Flipping the script builds communities up instead of cashing in on their destruction.
So while mass incarceration is one way of addressing crime, it is far from real justice.
“Reform”. Any time we trumpet out the word reform, it feels like we’re finally getting somewhere. And supporting progressive “reform” is the Good Liberal thing to do. But I have no interest in reforming the “criminal” “justice” system. Reform is looking at the cell and increasing the square footage. It is raising the minimum age for who can be placed in solitary confinement. It is lowering the ratio of crack to cocaine sentencing discrepancies. Reform does not vanish these things altogether; it merely ensures they take on another shape. Mitigation rather than abolition.
Our most recent mark of progress has been advocating for leniency (or even amnesty) for non-violent drug offenders, and that really is laudable. But collective solidarity on behalf of non-violent drug offenders has simultaneously become a justifiable call to arms and a red herring. Because this system does not just do an injustice unto nonviolent offenders, but even violent ones, many of whom have done terrible things. In trying to combat harm and abuse though, we have to consider the ways that prison exacerbates that harm and abuse, making the violence systemic. How do we resist the temptation to disregard these offenders' existence and instead ensure structures are in place to facilitate their potential for non-violent rehabilitation? Are “superpredators” not also worthy of our political care?
Believing in “reform” requires looking at a system built on structural racism and determining that it’s still necessary, just under softer contours. It requires us to give into our fear and admit that carceral solutions just make us comfortable and that our comfort is worth preserving more than the safety or visibility of millions. It requires us to believe that each bar built is made of steel and good intentions. And it requires us to say that our current system is simply broken.
But it is not broken. It is carefully waged and politically crafted. And it’s working exactly according to plan. We’re just lying.
This past week, at the end of the class I teach at Rikers Island, one of my students thanked me and explained, “Nobody gives a shit about us in here.”
“I hear you,” I responded. I didn’t know what else to say. I heard her. And hearing her is the only criminal justice reform worth a damn.