Jagmeet Singh, Prison Abolition, and the NDP Leadership Race

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A big “on the other hand”: I’ve been supporting Niki Ashton for the NDP leadership because she seems to push hardest against that party’s drift to the neoliberal centre, but I believe deeply that prison abolition and restorative justice (defined a bit more below) are essential to any genuinely radical left politics, and Jagmeet Singh’s criminal justice reform positions are hands-down the best in the race, and probably the best I’ve ever seen from a Canadian politician.
Singh is a criminal defence lawyer, so he knows and targets in depth the issues that blight Canada’s penal system: cruel and ineffective mandatory minimum sentencing laws, bail policies that keep people behind bars for the crime of being poor, the criminalization of the mentally ill and of racialized persons, and an overall tendency to favour punitive/retaliatory over rehabilitative/restorative forms of justice (despite lip service to the contrary). Other, related issues in Singh’s platform are under-theorized by comparison: concern for unfreedom at home should be matched with care for unfreedom abroad, and Singh, unlike Ashton, tends to sideline questions of international solidarity with oppressed peoples.
But his explicit, detailed refusal of conservative law-and-order politics is a huge deal, unmatched by any of the other candidates (Ashton comes closest). Prison abolition is an important conceptual framework because, as theorists like Angela Davis argue, it’s about so much more than prisons: to ask what would be necessary to render prisons obsolete, as a thought-experiment and a horizon, is to identify the social and cultural determinants of harm, to strategize concretely about how those harms can be limited, and to think carefully about non-violent approaches to individual and communal restitution, healing, and repair. In the Canadian context, prison abolition and restorative justice also imply a transformed relationship to Indigenous peoples, insofar as restorative justice adopts Indigenous principles (and practices!) of reconciliatory dialogue in place of the liberal utilitarianism that says that certain persons — the criminalized, the disabled, the mentally ill — are disposable.
I’m not moving my vote to Singh without more reflection, but the essence of socialism is the absolute unwillingness to accept that human beings should abide in cages and chains, and I have a lot of time for anyone who cries out against that horror, whether or not he calls himself a socialist.
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