960 words; 4 minutes to read
People who want to ‘abolish prisons’ or ‘defund the police’ are often dismissed as utopian thinkers, imagining a world that cannot exist. But in a provocative piece , US scholar Michael Coyle argues that the real utopians – people imagining a world that does not exist – are those who maintain a belief that the criminal justice system actually does, or can do, what it promises.
Coyle contends that the claims the criminal justice system makes about what it does are not borne out in reality. ‘A claim that the “criminal justice” system broadly and successfully accomplishes its work—namely, codifying serious and important transgressions into law, policing transgressions, adjudicating transgressions through the courts, and applying punishment for transgressions through prisons and other means—is difficult to defend.’
Further, ‘“criminal justice” logic represents humans in utopian terms, i.e., that most people are good (law abiding) and far fewer are bad (“criminals”), when data clearly demonstrate that violent and nonviolent “crimes” are committed by almost all persons within their lifespan. … “criminal justice” institutions (law, police, courts, and prisons) are utopian because they are imaginary places that do not exist as we imagine them… i.e., that by the threat or imposition of punishment, they function as an effective social control mechanism to prevent “crime” and deliver justice, for research clearly demonstrates that they infrequently achieve this. … “criminal justice” has failed to produce the utopian society it claims to have constructed: an ordered existence with justice, public safety, and a meaningful, shared community life.’
The ubiquity of wrongdoing
Coyle references much data showing how very common crime and wrongdoing are, and how few people are ever prosecuted, let alone convicted. To pick just a few of many examples he gives (US data unless otherwise noted, with sources cited in his paper):
- One in five women and one in seven men experience severe physical violence in their lifetime.
- One in three couples have engaged in physical violence
- A total of $3.5 trillion is lost annually to an incalculable number of individual thefts of all sizes, representing 5 percent of the annual gross world product.
- An estimated 50 percent of the time, investors are cheated in private equity firms’ collection of fees and allocation of expenses
- 5 percent of business revenue is lost to fraud each year yet very few people are charged or convicted of a fraud-related offense.
- Whereas individuals in the United States annually kill 16,000 persons, 70,000 are killed annually in product-connected accidents.
Work by others provides similar data on the ubiquity of wrong-doing and the infrequency any punishment for most of it. Indeed much wrongdoing is not even criminal under the law..
We pretend we are better than we are
Ignoring huge amounts of wrongdoing has a social and psychological purpose. ‘The collective refusal to acknowledge the ubiquity of transgression (“crime”) allows us to view ourselves as utopian creatures that are, in general terms, noble and untransgressive… we are not the kind of beings that regularly express severe physical violence, frequently participate in partner assault, constantly sexually violate each other, habitually physically and sexually abuse children, commonly act with hate toward those who are different, or systematically and methodically thieve, cheat and defraud one another… Such behavior is the behavior of “criminals,” which we are not… it is the bad people that do the bad stuff, and that is whom the “criminal justice system” is there to control.‘
Criminal justice institutions have many failures
But that system also fails in what it says it is for. The evidence does not support the claim that ‘the institutions assigned to manage crime actually achieve that. Does the law truly embody community agreements? Do police effectively control crime? Do correctional institutions lead to rehabilitation and less crime. Do they in combination help produce a good society with equal justice for all?
The evidence is that those things do not actually happen in practice much of the time. The police monitor and arrest some kinds of people over others, using violence to do so. In the courts, many people are found guilty even though they are not, or plead guilty because they cannot afford a proper defence. Thousands of people are held in jail in Canada who have not been convicted of anything. A large body of research shows that imprisonment overall creates more crime, not less, and that prisons themselves are places of lawlessness that have failed to change despite endless studies and reports urging such changes. ‘Yet, in general, the account of the prison as mostly functional and worth the money continues unabated’.
Utopian belief in the system
Given all of the above, Coyle’s argument is that continued faith in the criminal justice system is utopian – in the sense of believing in something that does not exist. The ‘“criminal justice” logic expands the “crime” and “criminal” narrative into a rationalization for “criminal justice” institutions that consequently further develops this utopia; and when these institutions fail to complete their missions, an account of their effective functioning nonetheless persists and is so dominant that it can only be described as a claim about something that has little bearing to what is known to exist,9 or, more specifically, a reference to a place that does not exist.’
Instead of ‘healing all those involved in transgressions, addressing their needs, and undertaking serious conversations about how to create just communities, we mask the actual etiology of “criminal justice” institutions… and instead take a tiny sample of “crimes,” ignore the needs of victims, and occupy ourselves with vengeful punishment of a fraction of offenders.’
It may be hard to imagine a society where there are no prisons, but it does no good to continue to believe in a set of practices that we know do not work.