By Tiffany Devlin
As the Covid-19 pandemic heavily impacted jails, prisons, and courts across the United States, advocates have pointed towards structural change in the criminal legal system.
Alec Karakatsanis and Chas Moore engaged in a virtual discussion this week titled, “Dismantling the Punishment Bureaucracy” hosted by the Tom Tom Foundation, where they spoke in depth about implementing structural changes, including anti-carceral reforms and investment in community wellness.
Karakatsanis is the founder of Civil Rights Corps, a non-profit civil rights organization based in Washington D.C. Karakatsanis and his organization have been filing Constitutional civil rights challenges such as challenging the money bail system.
Moore is the Executive Director of the community-based racial justice group Austin Justice Coalition, that aims to build community power and provide education for people of color in Austin, Texas.
Prefacing the discussion around the “punishment bureaucracy,” Karakatsanis spoke about changing the ways that our culture thinks about “human caging.”
“We live in a time of unprecedented human caging,” he starts, “so our organization is really trying, in many different ways, to ask: how did it become so normal to put so many people in cages? And how do we get out of that cultural mindset, and how do we attack some of the economic and racial undertones that led to that normalization?”
Moore began the panel by first asking how the criminal legal system currently reinforces race and wealth-based systems of power.
Karakatsanis argued the system reinforces history of both white supremacy and wealth accumulation, particularly white wealth accumulation in a few ways. The first way is how the system determines criminality.
“It’s still illegal in most places in the country for poor people to wager over dice in the streets, but it’s perfectly legal for billionaire investors to wager over international currency,” Karakatsanis explained, adding “the first way that the system does this and reinforces histories and architectures of oppression is by defining what is criminal.”
The second way that the criminal legal system reinforces the history of white supremacy and wealth accumulation is through deciding where to look for those crimes and who to prosecute for them. Karakatsanis described the racial disparity in the District of Columbia around usage and arrests of marijuana and cocaine possession as an example.
“Black people have been using cocaine and marijuana at lower rates than white people, but have been 90-95 percent of the people arrested for it,” he said. “The system of mass incarceration isn’t random. It’s being selectively applied in certain neighborhoods to certain people.”
Karakatsanis also described particular punishments and responses our society gives to certain crimes as reinforcements of race and wealth-based systems of power. He noted that while policymakers’ reactions to the opioid epidemic were to give resources and treatment programs, the reactions to the crack epidemic in the War on Drugs era was quite the opposite.
“The response was to cage as many people as possible… separate as many Black families as possible for an entire generation,” Karakatsanis continued, “two very different responses based on, in my opinion, different racial demographics on who is associated with abuse of certain types of drugs.”
Moore moves to a question specific to Covid-19 and its impact on jails and prisons. He asks what practices Karakatsanis is aware of that have changed due to the pandemic, and if such changes have resulted in long-lasting policy decisions.
Karakatsanis expresses the particularly horrific circumstances for those in jails and prisons during the pandemic.
“They’re trapped in an environment with terrible ventilation, and no control over whether they come into contact with people who are sick,” Karakatsanis said, “and so it’s been no surprise that the virus has spread like wildfire throughout this country’s jails and prisons.”
He claimed that prisons and jails were letting the virus continue to spread. While he and the Civil Justice Corps represented people in jails across the country, he reported that seven people died of Covid-19 in Cook County jail weeks after filing a Chicago case.
Additionally, instead of releasing people, jails and prisons have resorted to solitary confinement.
“There are 300,000 people right now, this moment, in solitary confinement around this country,” he said, “that is about five times what we think of as the daily solitary confinement average in this country.”
To the question if there may be significant changes and long-lasting policy decisions, Karakatsanis maintains that almost nothing was done by public officials to reduce jail and prison populations at the beginning of the pandemic. Instead, much of the reduction in the jail population had to do with law enforcement making fewer arrests.
“We were just talking to the Sheriff in Houston, Texas… and he is projecting astronomical increase in the jail population unless we do something drastic,” he explained, “I’m less optimistic that the Covid-19 pandemic has led to any real reckoning in our society at all about what our jails and prisons look like.”
Moore then asked what fundamental, radical changes need to happen in order to reimagine public safety that doesn’t rely on punitive measures in a carceral state.
Karakatsanis responds, explaining that people must think about alternate structures put in place so that society doesn’t think it needs carceral architecture to keep itself safe.
This includes a change in mentality when someone causes harm, who need to understand how the harm happened, how they can repair the harm with people they have hurt, and how we can build systems that will prevent the harm from happening less with restorative or transformative justice.
“I don’t think we’re really gonna be able to eliminate or dramatically reduce the criminal punishment bureaucracy if we don’t confront the two driving forces of that system,” said Karakatsanis, “that is, a history of white supremacy and a history of wealth hoarding.”
About confronting wealth hoarding, he notes that cities today are using municipal purchasing power to invest in worker-owned co-ops by formerly incarcerated people, directing city contracts to build economic power and political participation, and implementing community land trusts for people who had their wealth extracted through redlining.
Near the end of the discussion, Moore adds, “with the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and here locally Mike Ramos, it seems that a lot of our white brothers and sisters are realizing that maybe this thing is something we need to re-imagine. Maybe safety in the American context is something that is not afforded to everybody.
“I think very often we want to challenge the systems and institutions, but a lot of us don’t realize that it’s us, the individuals that uphold this terrible system,” Moore said.
In response, Karakatsanis noted that American society is divided, and has destroyed connections and relationships to tie communities together. This leads to less investment in relationships with others in the community, which is considered an “intentional project of capitalism.”
“The biggest obstacle I think will be liberal-democratic politicians,” he argues, “and in fact, they are the ones that control most city governments, they are the ones who are in control of the police.”
He sheds light on the fact that in Louisville, after Breonna Taylor’s death, democrats voted to increase the police budget. He also notes that after George Floyd’s funeral, the police department’s budget was increased by $20 million by Sylvester Turner, the Mayor of Houston, Texas.
Karakatsanis concludes that people need to continue to engage people in political education, along with deep relationship building within the community centered around learning the history behind the inequalities we see today.
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