Since this April marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, I’ll begin this column by asking: What makes slavery wrong? Of course, it’s because hiring labor on the basis of race without compensation is unethical and dehumanizing, especially when taking into account the abusive conditions slaves were often subjected to.

That’s actually only the modern answer. If you were to ask a member of the nineteenth century Free Soil Party what was wrong with slavery, one likely answer would be that poor white farmers were out of work. Many Free Soilers didn’t want slavery to expand into the Western States because it would have allowed landowners to employ slave labor for free instead of white labor for wages. Abolitionists who called for the immediate end of slavery on moral grounds were actually a small minority, contrary to what many of us learned in high school history class.

Keeping this in mind, let’s switch to a modern question. What’s wrong with the criminal justice system today? If you’ve led a safe life and have never had an encounter with law enforcement, you might say nothing. Or, if you’ve noticed the intensity of the crime alerts recently, you might say that the system isn’t doing a good enough job keeping us safe. On the other hand, you may be critical of the system (I’ll put myself in that category) for any number of reasons — U.S. law enforcement incarcerates a grossly disproportionate number of racial and ethnic minorities, the U.S. experiences higher rates of recidivism (when those released from prison commit another crime) than other modernized nations, many families and communities have been devastated by life sentences, etc.

But what will people say of today’s system in 150 years? According to the advocacy group Critical Resistance, the people of the future are going to wonder why today’s society thought it was rational to lock humans up in cages. The group deliberately refers to themselves as an abolitionist group — invoking the language of the nineteenth century anti-slavery movement — calling for an immediate end to the use of prisons and current law enforcement methods.

Before we get to the technical issues of this proposal, take a second to consider the historical possibility. Could future societies look upon our criminal justice system with the same derision with which we view slavery? Or even the way we view past incarnations of criminal justice? Think about how you react to movies set in previous centuries, when prisoners may have been shackled by their neck and wrists in the street for public ridicule or subjected to similarly outdated forms of punishment. Will future generations see our prison system as equally inhumane?

Okay, now I’ll address the elephant in the room. Why the hell would we choose not to lock up criminals? Critical Response argues that incarceration does not address the root causes of crime, such as depravation from substantial food and housing, and that mechanisms to reduce such problems would be more effective at reducing crime than a criminal justice system it considers “violent.”

The abolition of prisons is not a near-term possibility, and Critical Resistance’s explanation offers little in the way of how we could transition to that point. But there is a rationale to reducing prison use. Our system rests on the assumption that we need prisons to instill order, and that without them, criminals would run free in a chaotic and violent society. The research on this subject is vast, but it is certainly debatable to what degree the system succeeds in fulfilling this task. Meanwhile, it causes harm to countless families — primarily minority families in poor, urban neighborhoods. The usefulness of incarceration as a guiding paradigm for keeping our society safe is hardly set in stone.

The point of this column is two-fold. Though today we have a clear answer to the slavery question, around the time of the Civil War, it was a complex political issue. The different coalitions that made up the various sides of the debate could not at the time be separated into neat moral categories at the time. Looking 150 years down the road, then, there is no telling what society will be like, even on a matter like incarceration that is rarely questioned politically. Sure, Critical Resistance’s analysis of the problem is shaky, but I commend their drive to put criminal justice issues on the nation’s political agenda because today’s radicals may be the pride of the future’s history.

Jeremy Levy can be reached at jeremlev@umich.edu.

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