“The system is working the way it’s supposed to”: Professor Paul Butler calls for prison abolition

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Ayesha Sen and Clio Rao

On Wednesday night, guest speaker Professor Paul Butler discussed the problems and potential reforms for policing during the fifth installment of the Upper Division (UD) Speaker Series: “How Did We Get Here: The Problems and Potential Reforms for Policing Today.” History teachers Dr. Emily Straus ’91 and David Berenson ’95 coordinated the event, and Alecia Daley-Tulloch (12) and Sonia Shuster (12) moderated it.

Butler, a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, is a Georgetown law professor, author, activist, and well-known scholar of race and criminal justice. 

At the event, Butler discussed the common misconception that incarceration improves the quality of life for the average citizen. The first prison in the world, created in the early 1800s, was based on the idea that incarceration was fairer punishment than physical repercussions, he said. The origins of the system were flawed, and it continues to present problems today, he said.

Butler also explained different ideas surrounding incarceration reform and the abolition of the prison system. He explored how the need for criminal justice reform is rooted in greater American problems: white supremacy and the patriarchy. “You look at what happened to George Floyd and Michael Brown and think we need to get rid of these racist policing institutions, but the issue is actually a lot bigger than just policing,” Butler said.  “The problem isn’t bad apple cops, it’s that the system is working the way it’s supposed to,” he said.

Butler’s experience in the field of criminal justice helps him communicate his perspective, History Department Chair Dr. Daniel Link said. “[Butler] is an African American man, Ivy-League educated, and worked as a federal prosecutor,” he said. “He’s moved in different worlds, which means he can speak to different audiences.”

English teacher Jennifer Huang was especially struck by Butler’s assertion that the policing system was consciously designed rather than broken, she said. “It reframes the debate around police reform in a way that I think is likelier to effect meaningful change, because it doesn’t just nibble at individual cases,” Huang said. “It’s a comprehensive, systemic way of looking at the problem, and it indicates a need for radical, proactive solutions.”

Butler questioned the extent to which the United States criminal legal system meets its goals. “The reality is that prison doesn’t hold people accountable for the harm they’ve done or make people safer,” he said. “We talk about the ‘criminal justice system,’ but I don’t like that name at all because there’s actually no justice involved.”

Butler also explained the arguments for defunding the police from both a liberal and more “radical” viewpoint. “The radical arguments are centered around the idea that the police are the direct descendants of slave patrols, and they enforce a racial order,” Butler said. “Liberals aim to shift money away from cops and put it towards community service.” 

Based on conversations following the event, Butler’s views on abolishing the prison system have sparked varying responses in the community, Braden Queen (10) said. Butler offers provocative and often somewhat radical changes to policing with which Queen said he does not always agree. “I disagree with the overall message that policing is inherently broken.” Instead, Queen said that proper policing with proper reform is a better solution than completely eliminating the incarceration system.

Aside from Butler’s specific arguments, Queen said discussing policing reform is critical, because even though he may disagree with some solutions, America cannot progress without addressing the continued violence of law enforcement towards the African American community, he said. “We have to address [the topic] whether that be through defunding the police or through body camera reforms,” Queen said. “Something has to be done.”

Korff also did not agree with all of Butler’s arguments, he said. “Butler said at the start that some of his ideas were going to be provocative, and I felt like he definitely lived up to that.”

The presentation nevertheless provided Korff with education on the issue of policing, he said. “It increased my conviction that the criminal legal process has to be changed in some way.”  

During the discussion, Butler also discussed how racial biases are instilled in American culture. “But danger and immortality are not racial,” Butler said. “There is nothing about Black folks that makes us more dangerous than anybody else,” he said.

The Movement for Black Lives gives Butler hope that change may be forthcoming, he said. “From my experience as an activist who attended the Black Lives Matter protests, what I saw were young people, old people, LGBTQ people, straight people, Asian American people, LatinX people, African American people, and white people all coming together to demand change.”

Discussing criminal justice reform is essential, especially after the Black Lives Matter movement gained significant recognition this summer and became more mainstream, Sam Korff (10) said. “Understanding the issues that [activists] are trying to fight is more important than ever.”

Butler said it is up to the citizens of the United States to defend the racial minorities who deal with the fear of being wrongly incarcerated. America will only be successful in reforming the criminal legal process when the percentages of each ethnicity in prison reflect the percentages in all of America, he said.

French teacher Caroline Dolan was struck by Butler’s comparison that eviction is to Black women what mass incarceration is to Black men, she said. “Knowing that New York City is in the midst of an eviction crisis exacerbated by the pandemic, this throws into even sharper contrast the systemic discrimination that people of color, specifically many women of color, are up against.”

The event effectively continued the conversation started in the previous speaker series installments, Dolan said. The discussion of what radical overhaul of the police force in our country could look like echoed ideas that were shared explicitly in UD History Series talks by Professors Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Ana Raquel Minian, Dolan said. “This makes me call into question if the more centrist view of defunding is creative enough or sweeping enough.”

Butler’s discussion built upon previous events by furthering the conversation about systemic racism during an especially tense period of time, Link said. “This is a very important idea for students to think about, because it’s not always obvious, the way that structural racism operates.”

Hosting the monthly speaker series is crucial because both the speakers and the discussions that follow can help students understand where the country currently stands, especially regarding issues of race and ethnicity, Link said. “Sometimes, it can be hard to understand how we got to where we are in the present day and how that relates to what we’ve studied in the past,” he said. “I think that the events have really helped students understand that.”