White-Collar Grifters and Prison Abolition

Let’s look at a seeming contradiction. I am — more or less — in favor of prison abolition. (I’ll get to what that means in a moment.)

And I also want big-ticket white-collar criminals to rot in jail.

This seems like a contradiction. I think it’s not.

Here’s the thing. Yes, I support prison abolition and defunding police. But I don’t support doing either of those immediately. I don’t know anyone who does. Defunding police doesn’t mean “immediately abolish all police forces and replace them with nothing.” And prison abolition doesn’t mean “open all the prison gates today and let everyone go.” It’s a process.

Prison abolition is a process. And I don’t want that process to start with rich, white, white-collar grifters. I want it to start with people convicted of drug war crimes and non-violent property crimes. I want it to start with dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, putting the hammer down on racist police abuses, exploding the drug war into a million pieces. I don’t want it to start with Elizabeth Holmes.

We have gross imbalances in our justice system. When a black person stealing a $100 bicycle gets hit harder than a white person stealing $100 million from people’s retirement funds, that is a fucked-up interpretation of justice. Prison abolition is meant — among other things — to correct these imbalances. Why on earth would we start with rich white people?

Eventually, when our prisons aren’t choked with targets of racist policing and the drug war and the school-to-prison pipeline — then yes, sure, we can have a conversation about appropriate justice for white-collar crime. We can talk about fines that charge a percentage of someone’s wealth, rather than specific dollar amounts (a system that basically makes breaking the law just another cost of doing business). We can talk about community service that has some equity and some goddamn teeth, that doesn’t wind up with poor people cleaning garbage off the highways and rich people throwing charity balls. We can talk about restructuring our economic and political systems to limit wealth, or to make it harder to commit white-collar crimes in the first place, or both. We can have these conversations now, in fact: they’re part of creating a better justice system and a more just world.

But until we have some goddamn justice in our justice system, I’m not going to shed any tears for high-end white grifters. If the hundreds of thousands of incarcerated black people in the U.S. don’t get to live at home while waiting on their appeal, I don’t see why Elizabeth Holmes should.

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White-Collar Grifters and Prison Abolition
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