Prison Abolition’s Derek Chauvin Problem

Prison abolition has long been popular among academic criminologists, sociologists, and scholar-activists like Angela Davis, but before May 2020, it would have been unthinkable for a mainstream progressive to endorse it. Within weeks of George Floyd’s death, however,  mainstream media and even elected Democrats were arguing for the disbanding of police departments and the closure of all federal prisons.

Many of the same people who had called for the release of all incarcerated murderers, rapists, and drug dealers cheered, however, when former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was sentenced to more than two decades in prison. 


After the jury returned its verdict in Chauvin’s state criminal trial, the Abolitionist Law Center, for example, released a statement noting it would shed “no tears for Chauvin and other agents of the State who are fearful of conviction,” adding, cryptically, that “They should be.” 

When CBS and other outlets reported that Chauvin was being held in 23-hour solitary-confinement, one opponent of solitary confinement wrote that it was “problematic” to only consider “prison reform and solitary confinement when a notable White person falls victim to it,” since “the carceral state and all its inhumane forms of treatment were designed to ensnare Black people.” While she reluctantly conceded that Chauvin would be a beneficiary of her desired ban on solitary confinement, she added:

Pausing in the conversation with my friends about Chauvin is emblematic of a big moral [gray] area. What does one do when those who are inhumane to others are subject to a larger system of inhumane treatment? I am not sure. To pause, though, is to recognize the flaw of dialogue when Chauvin is the catalyst for prison reform conversations. The conversation can and should happen without focusing on him.

Many prisoners are in prison because they have been “inhumane to others,” of course, and many of the black inmates whom the author presumably considers more sympathetic than Chauvin have been convicted of similarly “inhumane” conduct.

But consistency is not the point, and it is a mistake to consider some progressives’ desire for prison abolition, on the one hand, and their celebration of Chauvin’s sentence, on the other, as being necessarily in tension. It is possible that, in the abolitionists’ brave new world, “bad” criminals like Chauvin would get the worst of what the criminal justice system of old had to offer, while the “good” criminals—non-hate, non-white collar, and non-sex crime offenders—would get the therapeutic and non-coercive alternatives to incarceration that abolitionists have championed for decades. 


I present this as background to blogger Freddie deBoer’s “Defund/Derek Chauvin Challenge” on Substack. DeBoer challenged abolitionists in his Substack readership to spell out, in 500 words or fewer, what, exactly, should have happened to Derek Chauvin in lieu of a prison sentence, with a promise to publish the winning proposal on his Substack.

Here was the winning entry, published late last week:

Once Derek Chauvin has been found guilty in a court of law, he is sentenced to a term of community service of a length and type appropriate to the severity of his crime. (So in this case, a lot. Life?) That community service is overseen by agents of the court; I’m thinking more like lawyers or clerks, less like armed bailiffs. Those agents are not charged with forcing him to stick to the community service, but rather just observing whether he does so.

If he forfeits on his community service, as determined by the courts, then he will be considered an “outlaw” – meaning, specifically, someone not protected by the law. Anything done to him that would ordinarily constitute a crime no longer does. No police are necessary; if he refuses to serve his time helping his fellow man, then anybody with a chip on their shoulder can punish him for it. As long as he sticks to his sentence, he’s safe, with his life dedicated to helping others. And if anyone were to commit a crime against him while he was in that situation they would face the same fate he currently faces—an appropriate community service sentence enforced by the threat of being put outside of the protection of the law should he violate that sentence.

Obviously, it’s crucial that the courts are seen as impartial and unimpeachable, since they don’t have a bunch of men with guns to enforce their will. But it’s the best I’ve got. Derek broke the social contract; either he makes amends or we’ll put him outside of the protection of that social contract. Simple as that.

The entire project is built atop faulty premises, of course—incarceration is and will continue to be a necessary part of any well-functioning criminal-justice system—but this answer, at least, attempts to define an alternative to incarceration that would apply equally to convicts progressives like and to those they don’t. 

The author’s aversion to the state’s using force is so extreme that he apparently considers vigilante violence, the implied punishment for deviating from the court’s community service requirements, superior to the death penalty, incarceration, or even to any of the coercive alternatives to incarceration that progressives have traditionally embraced.

In any case, I suspect this, from Kate Levine’s article “The Progressive Love Affair with the Carceral State” in the Michigan Law Review, comes closer to describing progressives’ actual views on decarceration, which is closer still to the Soviet view:

[Some progressives] decry the overuse of the criminal legal system and the brutality, racism, and inhumanity of the carceral state. Yet when it comes to people that progressives themselves identify as villains—employers, police, those who commit “hate crimes,” and white-collar or wealthy offenders—they advocate vociferously for new criminal laws, more prosecutions, and harsh individual sentences.

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