Monthly Archives: February 2021

Prison Cell

My Head and My Heart and Mass Incarceration

As I tweeted a couple of days ago, I strongly connected with Kali Holloway’s piece in The Nation, “I’m for Abolition. And Yet I Want the Capitol Rioters in Prison.” I want to reduce mass incarceration, but I also want to see these seditionists severely punished.

I’m reminded of the question that Michael Dukakis was asked in the 1988 Presidential Debate. During this debate, Bernard Shaw, who had a history of asking politicians squirm-inducing questions, asked Dukakis this:

“Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

Dukakis, with his long record of opposition to the death penalty, naturally answer no. But he did so in such a calm, dispassionate way, seemingly disconnected with the premise of the question – his wife being raped and murdered. He never connected with the emotion of the issue, of how one might feel if this really happened.

And Dukakis had first-hand experience that he could have drawn upon – his father had once been tied up and robbed in his office and his brother died in a hit-and-run car accident. But he never connected these heart-rending, emotional experiences with his dry, policy-driven answer.

So, like my thoughts about how to deal with the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6th, my head and my heart are pulling in opposite directions. If someone asked me the same question Dukakis was asked, I might give two answers. If someone attacked my wife, I would want to take a baseball bat to them, to cause them pain and suffering. And, that’s not the right way for society to act. The death penalty is wrong and needs to be eliminated.

When I think about the attack on the Capitol, on the attempt to violently overthrow a fair and democratic election, to attack and harm our representatives in congress, perhaps even lynch the Vice President, and the actual infliction of grievous bodily harm on the police and others, my heart demands strong action. I want to see all of these insurrectionists arrested and thrown in jail for a long, long time.

And yet, my head tells me that’s the wrong answer. We need policies that reduce mass incarceration, including shorter sentences, elimination of cash bail, and so on. The answer to inequities in our criminal justice system is not to put more White people in jail, it’s to reduce the use jails and prison for everyone. 

And that includes reducing the use of prison in cases that might make us otherwise uncomfortable. We can’t reduce mass incarceration by 50% (which is the goal of the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice) by only eliminating jail and prison for non-violent drug offenders.  

While “non-violent” drug offenders make up a significant portion of those in prisons and jails, there would still be another 80% to go. If we’re serious about making our criminal justice system more fair and just – we need to do a lot more. And throwing a bunch more people in prison for a long time because our hearts demand it doesn’t accomplish that goal.