An Abolitionist Horizon for (Police) Reform
66 Pages Posted: 11 Aug 2020 Last revised: 12 Jan 2021
Date Written: August 10, 2020
Since the Ferguson and Baltimore uprisings, legal scholarship has undergone a profound reckoning with police violence. The emerging structural account of police violence recognizes that it is routine, legal, takes many shapes, and targets people based on their race, class, and gender. But legal scholarship remains fixated on investing in the police to recalibrate and relegitimate their social function without paying sufficient attention to alternate frameworks for reform. The 2020 uprisings sparked by the police killing of George Floyd mobilized demands rooted in prison abolitionist organizing that provide another way forward. In contrast to conventional reform, the calls to defund and dismantle the police confront head-on the violence, scale, and power of the police, and therefore aim to redress police violence by diminishing the scale, scope, and legitimacy of police function. These calls are an important aspect of a practical agenda aimed at eliminating prisons and police and building modes of collective care and social provision.
In this Article, I identify a growing disjuncture between the deepening recognition of the violence at the heart of policing and the persistence of a reform agenda that advances investments in police. I argue that a structural critique of police violence demands that we take seriously an abolitionist horizon for reform projects. I unpack the implications of an abolitionist approach and identify paths forward for legal scholarship.
Keywords: abolition, police reform, social movements, Black Lives Matter, criminal law, law reform, police violence, mass incarceration, decarceration, defund the police, law and social movements, social change
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