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The Non-Reformist Reforms of #8toAbolition

The mass protests following the murder of George Floyd brought once-radical ideas into the spotlight

Written by Riley Roliff

The mass mobilizations that occurred in response to the police murder of George Floyd unleashed radical ideas once relegated to the political fringes. These ideas came together through the #8toAbolition campaign, which is a series of “non-reformist reforms” seeking to “reduce the scale, scope, power, authority, and legitimacy of criminalizing institutions.” These non-reformist reforms include defunding police, demilitarizing communities, investing in public services such as housing and healthcare, promoting community self-governance and more.


The campaign was a response to another campaign titled #8CantWait, which was a series of policy suggestions meant to mitigate the harm caused by policing. These included demands such as banning chokeholds, requiring alternatives be exhausted before using deadly force, requiring extensive reporting of uses of force and more. These demands were quickly met with criticism by activists who pointed out that many of these reforms have already been implemented in some of the most brutal police departments, largely to no effect.


The first and most publicized demand of the #8toAbolition campaign is defunding the police. Defunding became a major talking point of the mass mobilizations that occurred following the police murder of George Floyd. Excluding federal grants and resources, over $100 billion is allocated to police each year. Officials commonly defend large budgets by citing violent crime. Despite this, there is little-to-no evidence pointing to increases in police funding affecting violent crime. What evidence does show is that increasing the number of officers leads to an increased amount of misdemeanor offenses, which disproportionately affect people of color and those dealing with poverty. Roughly 95% of arrests each year are for low-level offenses such as marijuana possession, traffic violations and unlawful assembly. In addition, both violent and property crimes are at historic lows and have been steadily declining since the 1990s.


The large sums of money allocated to police is money that is not spent elsewhere, such as on reforms that would reduce the United State’s record levels of inequality and therefore increase public safety.


The second demand calls for demilitarizing communities. A recent study analyzing 9,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies found that, despite claims from police officials, police militarization does not lower violent crime rates or help to protect officers. SWAT teams, militarized police units specializing in military equipment and tactics, were originally meant to deal with hostage situations. They now spend a large majority of their time dealing with low-level drug investigations. SWAT teams are infamous for excessive violence, including harming civilians, creating property damage and killing pets. Unsurprisingly, studies have shown the SWAT teams are disproportionately deployed against people of color and those dealing with poverty.


The third demand calls for the removal of police from schools. This demand partly seeks to address the school-to-prison pipeline, which refers to the tendency for minors from disadvantaged communities to be funneled directly or indirectly into the criminal justice system. This can largely be traced to zero-tolerance policies initiated by the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act, which sought to create mandatory minimum punishments for students caught with firearms. Zero tolerance policies quickly expanded far beyond that, being used for anything from dress-code violations to tardiness and truancy. These policies disproportionately impact Black youth, and studies show that zero-tolerance policies have no impact on school safety while leading to increased drop-out rates, suspensions and expulsions. In addition, resources allocated to policing in schools are resources not allocated to things such as counselors, nurses and social workers. A recent study found that 10 million U.S. public school students attend a school with police but no social workers, and three million attend a school with police but no nurses.


The next demand calls for freeing people from jails and prisons. The United States incarcerates higher rates of citizens than any other country. This is despite the fact that incarceration does not reduce reoffending, and in some cases can increase it. Incarceration also disproportionately affects people of color. For example, African-Americans are 3.73 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite the fact that African-Americans and white people use marijuana at roughly equal rates.

In addition to being ineffective and disproportionate, prisons are rife with corruption and abuse. A recent Senate investigation found that Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) employees sexually abused female inmates in as many as two-thirds of federal prisons in the past decade. The perpetrators include prison wardens and chaplains. The investigation found that a large majority of complaints regarding sexual abuse had never been investigated. In the rare cases that officers were tried and admitted to their crimes, they often escaped criminal prosecution and were able to retire with benefits. Abuse is also rampant among the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) employees in immigrant detention centers. An investigation by The Intercept found over a thousand complaints of sexual abuse in immigrant detention centers from 2010 to 2017, with most of the allegations against employees. Most of the complaints were not investigated, and many of the victims faced retaliation when they attempted to file grievances.


So, if policing and prisons don’t stop crime, what does? Multiple studies make the case that expanding social services does just that. Many inmates struggle with drug abuse and mental illness, with up to three out of five jail inmates having a problem with substance abuse. Half of state and federal prisoners and two out of three jail inmates experience serious psychological distress or have a history of mental illness. A recent study found that increased numbers of drug treatment facilities lower both violent and property crimes. This is likely because violent crimes can be motivated by drug use and property crimes such as theft are often committed to fund one’s drug addiction. Another study found that states that expanded Medicaid access to low-income adults with children from 2001 to 2008 saw a decrease in both violent and property crimes. The increased access to insurance helps people afford needed treatment and lessens people’s financial insecurity.


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