Prison Abolition: From Naïve Idealism to Technological Pragmatism

42 Pages Posted: 6 Aug 2020

See all articles by Mirko Bagaric

Mirko Bagaric

Director of the Evidence-Based Sentencing and Criminal Justice Project, Swinburne University Law School

Dan Hunter

Queensland University of Technology

Jennifer Svilar

Independent

Date Written: August 2, 2020

Abstract

The United States is finally recoiling from the mass incarceration crisis that has plagued it for half a century. The world’s largest incarcerator has seen a small drop in prison numbers since 2008. However, the rate of decline is so slow that it would take half a century for incarceration numbers to reduce to historical levels. Further, the drop in prison numbers has occurred against the backdrop of piecemeal reforms, and there is no meaningful, systematic mechanism to reduce incarceration levels. Despite this, there is now, for the first time, a growing public acceptance that prison is a problematic, possibly flawed, sanction. Prison is expensive, inflicts serious unintended suffering on offenders, and profoundly damages families. Alternatives to prison are finally being canvassed. In one respect this is not surprising. The manner in which we deal with serious offenders has not meaningfully changed for over 500 years—during all this time, we have simply locked offenders behind high walls. The way we deal with serious criminals has been more resistant to scientific and technological advances than any other aspect of society. The most radical suggestion regarding prison reform is to abolish prisons. Abolition of prisons has been a theme in some limited academic quarters for many decades. It has never received anything approaching mainstream credibility as a reform option. This is now changing. Prominent politicians, social groups, university organisations, and the mainstream media commentaries have recently advocated prison abolition. This proposal is no longer a fringe idea. It has gained considerable more currency in light of the dual society-changing phenomenon of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matters movement. Yet, the persuasiveness of the proposal to abolish prison evaporates hastily when any degree of intellectual rigor is cast over the proposal. It is likely to go down as naïve idealism due to the absence of any practical alternatives to prison. This Article shores up the notion of prison abolition by carefully outlining an alternative to prison and hence addresses what is thought to be an insurmountable flaw in abolitionist proposal. We advance a viable alternative to prison that involves the use and adaption of existing monitoring and censoring technology, which will enable us to monitor and observe the actions of offenders in real-time and, when necessary, to halt potentially harmful acts of offenders before they harm other people. In proposing this new sanction, we give pragmatic weight to the prison abolition proposal and provide lawmakers and the community a pathway to abolishing most prisons. The reforms suggested in this Article can result in prison numbers being reduced by over ninety percent, without any diminution in public safety.

Keywords: Sentencing, abolitioning prisons, COVID, BLM

Suggested Citation

Bagaric, Mirko and Hunter, Dan and Svilar, Jennifer, Prison Abolition: From Naïve Idealism to Technological Pragmatism (August 2, 2020). Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 111, No. 2, 2021, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3665468

Mirko Bagaric (Contact Author)

Director of the Evidence-Based Sentencing and Criminal Justice Project, Swinburne University Law School ( email )

Hawthorn
Hawthorn
Burwood, Victoria 3000
Australia

Dan Hunter

Queensland University of Technology

2 George Street
Brisbane, Queensland 4000
Australia

Jennifer Svilar

Independent

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