Rutgers hosts event on prison abolition
Albert Brick Professor of Law at the Georgetown University Law Center Paul Butler spoke at Rutgers on Wednesday at an event called “Prison Abolition, and a Mule.” The event was hosted by the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.
Butler focuses on racial disparities in criminal justice. As a former prosecutor for the District of Columbia, Butler said he realized he was one of many Black people in a courtroom. In one instance, he said he was not recognized by a judge and viewed only as another Black man being charged for a crime, causing him to focus more on this issue.
“I want us to imagine a world without prisons,” he said.
Butler said the United States has approximately five percent of the world’s population and approximately 25 percent of the world's prisoners. He said every 100 people are incarcerated for every 100,000 people in the United States.
Butler spoke about a suggested process of gradual decarceration, instead of completely ridding the prison system. He said simply reforming the prison system would not change much, due to the sheer number of people imprisoned along with racist stereotypes and history that led them there.
“(Approximately) 80 percent of people in prison lived at or above the poverty line before they were locked up,” Butler said.
Butler talked about the dehumanization of Black people through stereotypes. He said socially, Black people have been perceived as ape-like, stupid or ignorant. He said stereotypes also led to white people being scared of unknown Black men.
Butler also said the Los Angeles Police Department used to have a code, No Human Involved (NHI), in the Black neighborhoods it was sent to, which further contributed to the dehumanization of Black people. He said this police tactic resulted in urban insurrection and an increased crime rate.
“There are more Black people in the criminal legal process today than there were slaves in 1850,” Butler said, “We have to do better.”
In his powerpoint presentation, Butler said the large number of people imprisoned are actually not there for violent crimes, but largely for non-violent crimes, such as drug possession or trafficking.
Butler said if 40 percent of inmates were released tomorrow, there would be no public safety difference due to the immense amount of minor non-violent prisoners, according to research from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. He said there would also be no major difference in the amount of people imprisoned, because there will still be a large number of prisoners.
Butler said he recognized that prison has been used as a place to keep the community safe, and to also punish people who did something wrong. The issue, he said, is prisons do not have a clean, healthy atmosphere, and when people leave prison, they are often in a worse condition.
Butler also said crime rates have decreased dramatically around the world and there is no direct link from the prison system to low crime.
Butler then linked prison abolition to slavery abolition. Referring to the title of the event, Butler said when slavery was abolished, free Black people were promised 40 acres and a mule, but never received the mule.
“One of the ways that abolition is under-theorized is what gets abolished. Abolishing has to be transformative, it has to be a positive subject,” Butler said.
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