Courts and the Abolition Movement

This Article theorizes and reimagines the place of courts in the contemporary struggle for the abolition of racialized punitive systems of legal control and exploitation. In the spring and summer of 2020, the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black and Indigenous people sparked continuous protests against racist police violence and other forms of oppression. Meanwhile, abolitionist organizers and scholars have long critiqued the prison-industrial complex, or the constellation of corporations, media entities, governmental actors, and racist and capitalist ideologies that have driven mass incarceration. But between the police and the prison cell sits the criminal court. Criminal courts are the legal pathway from an arrest to a prison sentence, with myriad systems of control in between, including ones branded as “off-ramps.” We cannot understand the present crisis without understanding how the criminal courts not only function to legitimate police and funnel people into carceral spaces but also contribute their own unique forms of violence, social control, and exploitation. These mechanisms reveal the machinations of mass criminalization and the injustices operating between the police encounter and the prison cell. Our central argument is that courts—with a focus here on criminal trial courts and the group of actors within them—function as an unjust social institution. We should therefore work toward abolishing criminal courts and replacing them with other institutions that do not inherently legitimate police, rely on jails and prisons, or operate as tools of racial and economic oppression.