In a series of tweets Monday morning, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) shone a spotlight on the prison abolition movement when she pointed out that mass incarceration in America “is a system whose logic evolved from the same lineage is Jim Crow, American apartheid, & slavery.”

Ocasio-Cortez went on to address the divided reactions to the notion of “prison abolition,” a political vision with the goal of ending incarceration through the creation of alternatives to imprisonment.

“The right is already freaking out,” she wrote on Twitter.

I know the term �prison abolition� is breaking some people�s brains. The right is already freaking out. Yet the US incarcerates more than anywhere in the world. We have more than enough room to close many of our prisons and explore just alternatives to incarceration. /1

October 7, 2019

“People tend to say ‘what do you do with all the violent people?’ as a defense for incarcerating millions,” she continued in her thread. “We should work to an end where our prison system is dramatically smaller than it is today.”

Ocasio-Cortez is  right to point out that the U.S. has a swollen prison system, incarcerating more people than anywhere in the world. She also noted, correctly, that poverty is a main contributor to mass incarceration, and vice versa.

But in many ways, the national conversation around mass incarceration looks much different than it did 30, 20, or even just 10 years ago. Public awareness of the problem has shifted, and it’s no longer politically risky for Democrats to call for major reforms to the policies and systems that have led to the imprisonment of so many. The 2020 Democratic presidential primary election exemplifies the drastic change within the criminal justice debate — candidates are proposing reforms like marijuana decriminalization and ending the death penalty.

Eliminating prisons as punishment for crimes sounds provocative, but leaders in the prison abolition movement say it’s a long-term goal that comes with multiple policy proposals. These proposals would require investing in jobs, education, housing, and healthcare — all of which they argue are necessary investments to create productive and violence-free communities.

“Abolition isn’t just about getting rid of buildings full of cagesaccording to abolitionist organization Critical Resistance. “It’s also about undoing the society we live in because the PIC (prison industrial complex) both feeds on and maintains oppression and inequalities through punishment, violence, and controls millions of people. “Because the PIC is not an isolated system, abolition is a broad strategy.”

Abolitionist groups have also fought for individual prisoners, better conditions in prisons, and to elect reform-minded officials.

Ocasio-Cortez’s move to uplift the conversation around reducing or eliminating incarceration in the U.S. came at the same time as her new six-bill legislative package, “A Just Society.”

The package “aims to combat one of the greatest threats to our country, our democracy, and our freedom: economic inequality,” and recognizes and targets the role that mass incarceration has in exacerbating poverty.

In addition to addressing poverty by raising the federal poverty guidelines and ensuring access to federal programs regardless of immigration status, her package also makes it illegal to deny access to federal benefits because of a past criminal conviction.

Alex Arriaga is a reporter and writer based in Chicago. Her work focuses on how people engage and participate in democracy and how community reporting can empower that participation in different ways....