Prison Abolition and Restorative Justice

Should we abolish prisons? Students learn about and discuss the history of calls for prison abolition and consider alternative approaches, including restorative justice.  

To the Teacher:

Can we abolish prisons? In recent years, many reformers, politicians, prison wardens, and criminal justice theorists have come to the conclusion that our prison system is fundamentally broken and that we should completely rethink the way our society handles crime, punishment, and rehabilitation.

This lesson is divided into two readings designed to have students explore the issue of prison abolition. The first reading looks at the history of prison abolition and some of the arguments that have historically been advanced for this position. The second reading considers the question of what might replace prisons and on approaches, such as restorative justice, that could both address crime and lead to a more just society. Questions for discussion follow each reading.


Reading 1:
What is Prison Abolition?

Can we abolish prisons? In recent years, many reformers, activists, politicians, prison wardens, and criminal justice theorists have come to the conclusion that our prison system is fundamentally broken and that we should completely rethink the way our society handles crime, punishment, and rehabilitation. They point out that prisons today aren’t doing what they were supposedly created to do: Prevent people from relapsing into criminal behavior (called recidivism) and provide an ethical alternative to physical punishment.

Today, in our era of mass incarceration, the idea of prison abolition is more relevant than ever. The United States criminal justice system now holds a record 2.3 million people behind bars in state prisons, federal prisons, local jails, and juvenile detention facilities. The U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration of any county in the world. We have less than five percent of the world’s population, but hold 25 percent of the people who are behind bars. We imprison more than four times as many people per capita as the United Kingdom.

Vanessa Hernandez, Education Equity Director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington state, argues that "America’s over-reliance on mass incarceration has caused great harm to families and communities, disproportionately affecting people of color, poor people, and people with mental illnesses and disabilities. The U.S. spends $80 billion a year to keep people locked up, yet it’s not clear this has made us any safer. Research shows that isolating people in prisons and jails fails to address the underlying reasons for their crimes and can increase the likelihood they will re-offend."

Prison abolition activists have been questioning the effectiveness of prisons for decades, both in the United States and Europe. As authors and restorative justice experts Daniel Van Ness and Karen Heetderks Strong explain in their book Restoring Justice, in the 1960s and 1970s, members of the Quakers, among others, began urging that we find alternatives to  prisons. The authors write that this movement was fueled in part by "prison abuses that seemed to be inherent in the institution of prison itself and consequently not amenable to reform. This skepticism was increased by the conviction that criminal justice could not be achieved in an unjust society." Reformers argued that prisons not only failed to rehabilitate people, but also caused acute suffering by prisoners.

Prison abolition advocates make a number of arguments for eliminating prisons. The National Lawyers Guild (NLG), a progressive public interest association of lawyers and other legal professionals, passed a resolution supporting prison abolition in 2015. This resolution highlighted several of these arguments:

  • Prisons further racial inequality: People of color make up a far greater portion of prisoners than they do the general population: "Black women are the fastest growing group of prisoners, and Native American prisoners are the largest group per capita." There is a great deal of evidence that bias in policing and sentencing are central reasons for this racial disparity.
  • Prisons increase class disparity: The NLG argues that "prisons punish poverty and crimes of survival, making individuals suffer for social conditions such as poverty, homelessness, and lack of access to mental healthcare and other resources? the proliferation of ‘quality of life offenses’ associated with existence in public spaces disproportionately criminalizes homeless, precariously housed, and low­income people and transgender people of color."
  • Prisons cause violence:  This violence includes "solitary confinement, strip searches, overcrowding, denial of needed healthcare, beatings, rape, humiliation, or other tactics." NLG states that "prisons routinely use violence to control and dominate prisoners." This, says NLG, "violates all standards of human decency and, in many cases, international law."
  • Prisons cost the U.S. a huge amount of money: According to the NLG, "states spend an average of 3 to 6 times more incarcerating an adult than they spend educating a young person." Fewer than 20% of incarcerated people have a high school diploma. Money now spent on incarceration could be used to help people get an education and access to other opportunities.

While prison abolition advocates broadly agree on promoting of a vision of "decarceration," they have some disagreements about immediate goals. Authors Van Ness and Strong describe some of these varying positions over the past decades:

Some proponents of abolition called for prisons to be done away with completely. Others sought to decrease the use of prisons dramatically. Still others campaigned for a moratorium on construction of new prisons. In place of prisons, they suggested that restitution, compensation, and reconciliation programs be established in local communities so that the response to crime could be decentralized.

They took inspiration from Jerome Miller, who became head of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services in 1969. He promptly began shutting down the state’s youth facilities, replacing them with community-based programs. By the time he left his position 3 years later, there were essentially no custodian facilities remaining for young people in the state.

But prison abolitionists agree on this: Our society needs to find alternatives to mass incarceration.


For Discussion

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. According to the reading, what are some of the main arguments in favor of prison abolition? Do you find any of these arguments compelling? Why or why not?
  3. The reading cites the example of Jerome Miller, who replaced youth custodial facilities in Massachusetts with community-based programs. What do you think of this example? Do you think it could be effective to handle juvenile offenses using community programs rather than detention facilities?
  4. Advocates of prison abolition sometimes see themselves at odds with proponents of  "prison reform." Reformers call not for replacing prisons but for improving conditions within prisons and increasing funding for them. Are "prison reform" and "prison abolition" contradictory goals? What are the advantages of each approach?


Reading 2:
Restorative Justice as a Step Toward Abolition

If we abolish prisons, what will replace them? What do we do when people harm one another? One practice that can serve as a step towards abolition is known as "restorative justice."

Paul Tullis, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, described in a January 4, 2013 article how restorative justice works:

Most modern justice systems focus on a crime, a lawbreaker and a punishment. But a concept called "restorative justice" considers harm done and strives for agreement from all concerned — the victims, the offender and the community — on making amends. And it allows victims, who often feel shut out of the prosecutorial process, a way to be heard and participate.

In this country, restorative justice takes a number of forms, but perhaps the most prominent is restorative-justice diversion. There are not many of these programs — a few exist on the margins of the justice system in communities like Baltimore, Minneapolis and Oakland, California — but, according to a University of Pennsylvania study in 2007, they have been effective at reducing recidivism.

Typically, a facilitator meets separately with the accused and the victim, and if both are willing to meet face to face without animosity and the offender is deemed willing and able to complete restitution, then the case shifts out of the adversarial legal system and into a parallel restorative-justice process. All parties — the offender, victim, facilitator and law enforcement — come together in a forum sometimes called a restorative-community conference. Each person speaks, one at a time and without interruption, about the crime and its effects, and the participants come to a consensus about how to repair the harm done.

Tullis notes that, in rare cases, restorative justice has been used to address violent crimes, but that the process usually involved less serious offenses: "The methods are mostly applied in less serious crimes, like property offenses in which the wrong can be clearly righted — stolen property returned, vandalized material replaced. The processes are designed to be flexible enough to handle violent crime like assault, but they are rarely used in those situations."

Vanessa Hernandez of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington state, argued in an October 24, 2016, article that the U.S. could reduce its prison population through the use of restorative justice practices:

Restorative justice provides an alternative that can help break the cycle of over-incarceration for many offenses.  Restorative practices focus on repairing the harm that has been done, rather than simply punishing someone who has committed an offense by locking them up. Restorative practices in the criminal justice system, including peacemaking circles, mediation, and family conferencing, bring people who have committed crimes together with victims of crime, their families, and other community members to identify and address the damage caused by crime...

Those who have taken part in restorative justice circles say they empower participants. This can lead to improved outcomes for all involved. When victims of crime are allowed to take an active role in the disposition of their cases, they are more likely to feel that their suffering has been recognized and acknowledged by both the offender and the state. Likewise, when offenders confront the harm their actions have caused others, they often experience remorse and a desire for change.

Because they offer youthful offenders an opportunity for learning and growth, restorative justice practices can be especially effective in juvenile justice programs. New Zealand has required another form of restorative practices (called Family Group Conferences) for almost all juvenile crimes for the past 20 years. Restorative practices in New Zealand haven’t replaced the use of incarceration in appropriate sentences, but sentences produce better outcomes because they are developed with the input of all involved.

In recent years, schools have begun adapting the "restorative justice" approach as an alternative to traditional punitive forms of school discipline (such as detention and suspension). Interest in school-based restorative practices grew quickly after it became clear that suspensions were disproportionately targeting students of color, sometimes leading to negative consequences for these students.

Restorative practices in schools (including Morningside Center’s programs) often put a strong emphasis on preventing conflicts from happening in the first place by creating stronger bonds and better understanding among students and between students and adults. This happens in part through classroom "restorative circles" in which people share their experiences and stories. When a harm does occur, the focus is on helping the person who caused the harm to understand the impact of their actions on others, repairing the harm, and being "restored" to the community they have become part of.



For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. According to the reading, what is "restorative justice"? How are restorative justice practices different from typical criminal justice processes?
  3. Advocates of restorative justice explain that a number of preconditions must be present in order for the process to work. These include: a willingness from both sides to listen to one another, an ability for parties to talk without animosity, and an ability for a person to complete restitution. Why might these kinds of preconditions be important? Are there any other conditions that you can think of that can help make restorative justice effective?
  4. Do you have experience of restorative practices at school? What benefits can you see of such an approach?
  5. Can you think of a situation in your life in which restorative justice could have been useful?
  6. To what extent do you think that restorative justice might be used to reduce the prison population in the United States? Do you think this approach holds promise? Why or why not?


—Research assistance provided by Ryan Leitner