Reforms for Radicals? An Abolitionist Framework


This Article draws on prison abolitionist organizing, campaigns, and intellectual work around the country to offer a framework for thinking about radical reforms rooted in an abolitionist framework. A radical reform (1) shrinks the system doing harm; (2) relies on modes of political, economic, and social organization that contradict prevailing arrangements and gesture at new possibilities; (3) builds and shifts power into the hands of those directly impacted, who are often Black, brown, working class, and poor; (4) acknowledges and repairs past harm; and (5) improves, or at least does not harm, the material conditions of directly impacted people. After laying out the framework, the Article examines three reforms: body cameras, “progressive prosecutors,” and reparations. While we agree with abolitionist organizers that no singular reform can fundamentally transform political, economic, and social relations, abolitionist frameworks create space to collectively agitate on the role of reform in transformational, rather than legitimating, projects.

About the Author

Marbre Stahly-Butts is the Executive Director at Law for Black Lives. She received her J.D. from Yale Law School, J.D. in 2013. Marbre is a member of the Movement for Black Lives Policy Table, which collectively authored and facilitated the writing of the Vision for Black Lives. Amna A. Akbar is a Professor of Law at The Ohio State University, Moritz College of Law. For engagement with drafts the authors are grateful to Derecka Purnell, Allegra McLeod, Jocelyn Simonson, Michael Cahill, and the 2017 Theorizing Criminal Law conference at Rutgers Law School.