This is a blueprint for ending the dehumanization that has criminalized extreme vulnerability and created an incarceration crisis — and building in its place an America with dignity and freedom for all of us, starting with those who are the most vulnerable.
America’s incarceration crisis is the ultimate example of the politics and underlying culture of dehumanization that we must end together. Our government is not merely failing to reduce vulnerability, but exacerbating it, with the carceral state. We lock up more people than any other country on Earth. Though our crime rate is as low as it has been since the early 1970s, our incarceration rate is five times higher today. We criminalize poverty, needlessly separate children from their parents, and destabilize and destroy families, even entire neighborhoods, in the process.
Americans are not inherently more dangerous than the citizens of the rest of the world, or more dangerous today than we were in the 1970s. What caused the dramatic increase in the incarceration rate is cynical politicians and law enforcement’s old guard who wield fear, especially racialized fear, to divide and distract us so that they can maintain their power. A system that was always cruel to Black and brown Americans was made even more devastating, and poor and working class people have been disproportionately harmed as well, but the dehumanization that created this cruelly punitive system has made all of us worse off.
We need to transform how we respond to crime and violence. We are safer when we use imprisonment not as the default, but as a last resort. We are stronger when we emphasize prevention and treatment over incarceration or monitoring. We affirm our common dignity when we do not permanently define people by their worst acts, but rather give everyone an opportunity to grow and change.
Those changes, though, are just the start. The antidote to the broader politics of dehumanization, and the way we make the promise of dignity and freedom real for everyone, is to guarantee that all of us have the basic resources we need to live a stable life. Vigorous government mobilization to reduce vulnerability, and not the absence of government intervention, best respects our dignity and enables freedom to flourish. Freedom requires the person exercising it to have basic stability — an impossibility when a person cannot afford to pay rent or to eat or access mental health care or substance use treatment.
Right now in America, our government is not meeting this basic obligation. Most of us are one major illness or lost job away from financial disaster, and many of our neighbors are unhoused or unable to provide food for themselves and their families. We can address these problems by providing people with access to the resources to meet their basic needs, including universal health care, shelter, and public transportation.
America’s incarceration crisis and our inability to help our neighbors meet their basic needs both trace back to a culture of dehumanization. To end that toxic politics and build an America with freedom and dignity for all of us, starting with those who are the most vulnerable, we need to rewrite the rules to shrink and transform our criminal legal system and put stability within everyone’s reach.
This is a blueprint to do it.