There’s something strange, almost perverse, in the idea that prisons and police have anything to do with democracy at all. Of course, every country that calls itself a democracy patrols its streets and incarcerates those it deems to be wrongdoers—despite the calls today for abolition in many parts of the world, no democracy has taken up such a radical challenge. But the criminal justice system is one area of democratic societies where we readily and openly accept what can only be seen as un-democratic practices. The incarcerated are by definition deprived of basic individual rights, and are subject to the near-absolute authority of prison and jail officials. Where police are not held vigorously to account, residents of many poor urban neighborhoods often face similar arbitrary power.
For an increasing number of Americans, though, there is nothing strange at all about thinking of criminal justice as a central issue in the contest to define democratic life. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, published nearly ten years ago, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, have helped build what is now arguably the consensus view that the United States locks up far too many people for too long, and that this “mass incarceration” operates as a system of racial control. Despite the right’s backlash against groups like BLM and its flair for “tough on crime” rhetoric, even the Republican Party under Donald Trump has recognized that there is a need for criminal justice reform. Grassroots movements against mass incarceration and police brutality in recent years have achieved significant advances through the democratic electoral process, from the elections of radical and reformist prosecutors in places like Philadelphia and Chicago, to Florida’s successful ballot measure to restore voting rights to ex-felons.
It is tempting to see this spike in democratic activity over prisons and police as a uniquely American phenomenon. Democracies that have not experienced America’s unique history of slavery and segregation, one might think, would not be faced with the challenges posed by the “New Jim Crow.” The aim of this series of articles that will appear on the Tocqueville 21 Blog throughout the month of March, however, will be to explore the democratic implications of criminal justice issues both within and beyond America’s borders. First, we’ll hear from Bernard Harcourt on the role of policing and “counterinsurgency” tactics in shaping the framework of neoliberalism. Gianna Englert will then take us back to the original project of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America as a study of American prisons as an example for the Old World nations. Next, we’ll hear from Joël Charbit on French prisoners’ struggles for collective rights, as well as for the ultimate abolition of prisons. On that same topic, Vincent Lloyd explains the deep roots of abolitionism in the fundamental principles of democracy. Finally, Rita Carlos and Adrien Maret outline the major stakes for reforms to France’s prison system.