A Carceral Con Lurks Behind Plans for Reform

As public opposition to racialized mass incarceration and police and prison violence has grown, so have calls for reform; the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations have all embraced some of them. But as Kay Whitlock and Nancy A. Heitzeg show in their new book CARCERAL CON: The Deceptive Terrain of Criminal Justice Reform (UC Press; September 21, 2021), these reforms don’t end or even shrink the raced and classed violence of policing and carceral control. They expand it.

Utilizing an abolitionist lens, Whitlock and Heitzeg peel back the reform veneer of false promises, contradictions, evasions, and half-truths  to document the ways in which bipartisan reforms expand structural racism and poverty, drive new processes of criminalization, add new layers of surveillance, privatize public responsibilities, and keep a massively destructive apparatus intact. Rather than reform, they argue, we need to address the factors that created this system in the first place—notably a predatory and racist capitalism that requires a disadvantaged and exploited underclass.

We need to ask the radical question: if aggressive policing and rapidly expanding systems of carceral control produce only more violence and injustice, what different approaches hold more promise for building a better society? 

You say early on in the text that “much of this terrain is obscured—not by accident, but by design.” Can you explain who is doing the obscuring and why?

Nearly all bipartisan criminal justice reforms rest on the notion that the current system of policing and punishment is an essential, permanent feature of the civic landscape. The world of reform is self-contained and self-referential, with no possibility of looking for answers outside the confines of criminal justice itself. Institutionalized through the creation of public-private partnerships that benefit politically and/or financially from reform, partners include philanthropic organizations and billionaire donors, foundations, think tanks, influential advocacy and nonprofit organizations, corporations, universities and research institutes, and governmental agencies and boards. Rhetorical flourishes – calls for “enhancing public safety” and an end to ‘overcriminalization” – disguise the complexity of the issues/impacts from well-intended people who want to reduce mass incarceration. As a result, reforms, much of it engineered by those who will benefit the most financially from its outcomes, have largely resulted in expansion rather than reduction of multiple forms of carceral control and mass surveillance.  And the structural racism and poverty, foundational to the criminal legal system, remain intact. 

What do you mean by “racial capitalism,” and what is its relevance to reform/abolition debates? 

In brief, racial capitalism is an economic system that evolved from and requires racialized hierarchy, inequality, exploitation, and violence. Racism is not a by-product of capitalism, but an intrinsic feature of it. 

Carceral Con argues that it is impossible to comprehend the nature and impacts of the criminal legal system without understanding the ways in which structural racism and economic violence are foundational to and reproduced by that system. Reforms that skirt this reality talk endlessly about “reducing racial disparities,” but transformational change demands more than a criminal legal system that merely distributes the violence of carceral control more efficiently and equitably to poor people of color and poor white people. It demands not only reducing but dismantling the structural violence of racism and poverty that determines which communities are criminalized, intensely and violently policed, prosecuted, and placed in some form of carceral supervision and control. And it demands redistribution of resources away from carceral control to community well-being. 

What do we lose when we only talk about incremental reform? 

Discussions of specific, piecemeal reforms force us to remain within the framework and logic of the criminal legal system itself. There is no consideration of the larger social, political, economic, ecological, and geographic context in which carceral practices and policies arise, evolve, and expand. But that context is essential to understanding where we are today, and why.

We lose the ability to look at the foundation of structural racism and poverty and other forms of structural violence that determine which groups will be criminalized and swept into the system and which ones will not. That determine how social, economic, and ecological hardship is distributed in this country. That determine the distribution of social and economic goods and resources.

Simply put, the violence and inequality of the criminal legal system arise from larger systems of structural racism, poverty, and other forms of inequality. Incremental reform discussions refuse recognition of this fact, tacitly encouraging us to turn away from reality. 


Some say the insistence on “defunding the police” hurts the cause of progressive change and forces politicians into a debate controlled by extremists. Do you agree? 

No. Given the millions of lives of primarily Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples, and given the many marginalized communities who bear not only the brunt of police violence but of structural racism and poverty generally, it is grimly ironic to suggest that a slogan is a primary barrier to progressive change. Given growing public awareness of and opposition to systemic police violence, this insistence functions as an accusation meant to derail abolitionist organizing. Some suggest that it is a slogan proffered by irresponsible “extremists.”

The pro-police establishment often resorts to the charge of “extremism” to discredit anti-police violence campaigns and to discourage others from supporting or even just actively engaging “defund” arguments. At the same time, the suggestion is made that the very same public and private actors who continue to enable the violence of policing and carceral control are the very ones who should determine reform agendas, presumably with slogans more to their liking. 

CARCERAL CON emphasizes the need to address formal and informal processes of criminalization rather than crime rates. Why this emphasis? 

“Crime” is a social and political construction, created formally by legislators at the local, state, and federal level and further constructed by policing practices that target already marginalized groups. Race, class, gender, sexual orientation, age and ability shape entry into the criminal legal system, and are greater predictors of criminal labeling than any actual participation in crime.  

Crime rates are a function of crimes known to and reported by the police to FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, and tend to reflect biases in both police practices and citizen reporting, i.e., crime rates capture a glimpse of “street crime” at any given moment, but fail to account for law-breaking activity committed systematically by corporations or wealthy individuals. Despite this missing data, crime rates remain relatively stable over the long term, and are largely independent of criminal justice policy or policing practices.  But slight increases, especially in reported violent crime, are used by media and law enforcement proponents to escalate public fears and demand more funding for police and punishment. 

A central part of CARCERAL CON is the idea of abolition. What exactly do you want to abolish? The pushback to abolition typically involves the fear of  “chaos,” danger, and a complete breakdown in public safety. How do you respond to this? 

Abolition calls for dismantling the prison industrial complex (PIC), which refers to the overlapping and mutually reinforcing interests of governments, industry, organizations, and others who work together to administer and expand systems of criminalization, policing, and carceral control. Investment in endless surveillance, intensified policing, and more forms of carceral control reproduces violence on a massive scale; it never reduces it. And it systemically jeopardizes the safety of marginalized groups and communities. This is why abolitionists organize to steadily reduce reliance on, shrink, and defund those systems so that policing and prisons are rendered obsolete.  

But abolition is not merely the absence of violent and death-dealing institutions. It’s also the active, material presence of life-giving approaches that emphasize community and ecological well-being; that shift public resources toward that end. That’s also what creates real public safety, not just for elites, but for all of us. 

What could a future without prisons and policing look like? 

Prisons and policing do not make us safer – the criminal legal system puts marginalized communities at substantial risk of violence and death, including the civic death associated with incarceration and collateral consequences. They arise from and reproduce structural racism and poverty. Millions are ensnared in this web of structural violence. Even for those who are not, the billions poured into more policing, more prisons contribute to the neoliberal starvation of social spending for education, healthcare, housing, employment opportunities and anti-poverty programs, all which serve as a buffer against so-called crime and processes of criminalization. 

A world without policing and prisons requires governance that prioritizes the affirmation of life versus death-making and invests in the well-being being of all. It requires, too, engaged communities committed to mutual aid, accountability, and a vision of transformative justice, created and sustained together.