Content warning: mention of sexual assault, abuse, murder
Each day, more people realize that the so-called justice system doesn’t actually serve us. We are recognizing that abolition is necessary, but that doesn’t mean we always honour the ethos of abolition in our own communities and work. Instead of actively working toward community care and building a just environment for all, we tend to police one another — and it’s often in the name of radical politics.
If we want to live in a world that prioritizes community care over criminalization, we first need to address how our own behaviours mimic carceral ones. Exiling people who have caused harm from our communities creates the illusion of safety, which may make us feel better for a bit, but it’s a bandage on a much deeper cut.
Projecting shame onto others undermines abolition. It eliminates any possibility of accountability or reconciliation, inhibits growth, furthers isolation, and increases the likelihood of these events happening again. This idea that harmful behaviour brands a person for life is detrimental to collective growth — and it’s the exact opposite of abolition.
We can and should hold multiple truths in our minds when it comes to damaging behaviours. Yes, someone did a hurtful thing. Yes, they still deserve help, compassion, and care. These are not mutually exclusive.
People cause harm. I have caused harm, you have caused harm, and people have harmed us as well — consciously or not. It’s just the truth. As each of us navigates this complex reality, our stories remain our own. Our lived experiences are valid, important, and true. That's something no one can ever take away.
The problem is how we collectively proceed when harm takes place. Do we find ways to help that person right their wrongs and teach them why their actions were hurtful, or do we immediately label them as a “bad” person with whom no one should interact? Unfortunately, most of us resort to the latter approach.
When someone makes a mistake, we broadcast their slip-ups. We publicly shame them and freeze them in time at their worst moment. We treat that person as if they were innately bad until they start to believe it themselves.
You’ve probably seen examples of these carceral measures in action too. They usually occur on social media with people publicly exposing how terrible an individual is because of their previous mistakes. The implication of these posts is to de-platform and socially isolate the person who has caused harm, sending a message that says: “You are bad and you cannot recover from this no matter what you do.”
Harmful actions are destructive and wrong — there’s no doubt about it. Anger is justified and we need accountability so we can all grow. It makes sense why many participate in these kinds of chastizing behaviours. People want to know exactly who they’re supporting or personally involved with. It’s done in the name of accountability out of the goodness in people’s hearts, but what if it’s doing more harm than good?
Putting people on blast, tearing them down, and attacking them across the board often causes more problems than healing. When we try to isolate people from any remaining supports they have — friends, family, coworkers — we turn a growing opportunity into a carceral one. Yes, anger is justified. Yes, people need to be held accountable for their actions, but punitive measures are not productive.
It’s okay if you never want to speak to your abuser again. It’s okay if you don’t want your family and friends to stay in touch with that person. That doesn’t have to be the goal of transformative justice.
However, a person who has caused harm is still a person. They still deserve community care. They still deserve to have their needs met. They still deserve help.
You do not have to be part of the abuser’s support network, but you don’t get to decide if they deserve to heal.
I have seen too many situations like the ones mentioned above — someone engages in harmful behaviour and society essentially exiles them. You’re judged if you continue following them on social media. You’re looked down upon if you remain friends with them. God forbid you ever publicly support them again, even after they’ve taken responsibility, acknowledged their wrongdoings, and changed their ways.
How can we vouch for a prison-free world when we perpetuate these punitive measures every day? How can we expect people to grow past their mistakes when they’re shackled to them?
We can’t. And abolition can’t happen until we can accept the simultaneous truths that a person can cause harm and still deserve help.
People are not disposable. Ever. Yet too often, we act like they are.
Much like incarceration, when we categorize people as either “good” or “bad” and socially dismiss the latter, growth can’t take place. There isn’t even a chance for learning to take place.
When we exile people, we don’t teach them what they did wrong. In some cases, people had no idea their behavior was harmful in the first place. Without education, there’s a higher chance that they’ll repeatedly continue causing harm to others. Negative reinforcement does not work. We know this.
For example, if a sex offender didn’t understand they coerced someone because they eventually heard the word “yes,” how will they ever learn unless they’re properly taught about consent?
Eliminating learning opportunities and branding someone as innately “bad” also means people whose behavior is affected by factors like mental health issues, including drug use, may never get the help they need.
Let’s consider a hypothetical situation: a person who is unstable and experiencing psychosis ends up killing someone. This person has clearly caused a significant amount of harm, but rather than painting them as a villain in every media headline, airing each detail about their trial, and further impeding this person’s healing journey, we can offer them help and support to understand the harm they caused and aid their growth.
As abolitionists, we know that locking someone up is never the way to rectify harm. Instead, we must offer community care and social supports. In this case, the person must first receive mental health treatment to stabilize them and minimize the risk of such a situation happening again. This step is vital to their own well-being and that of others around them.
When the person returns to a healthier, more stable state, they can be slowly reintegrated into their community while still under the care of mental health professionals. This is the time when community organizations that help people find homes, work, or support groups come into play. Helping people get their basic needs met is harm reduction.
There may be natural limitations regarding the degree to which a person who has caused harm can reintegrate into their community. For example, if a person has sexually assaulted a minor, then it’s not a good idea for them to return to their job coaching middle school students. Not only is this a safety issue for the children involved, but it may also be triggering and unhealthy for the person who has caused harm. This example goes to show how nuanced a person’s healing plan can be. Each person needs different levels of support that are expressed in different ways — it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation.
Support can also be shown through what we don’t do. Media should not be constantly keeping tabs on people who have caused harm for the sake of a story. While the public may be interested, this constant invasion of privacy can hinder a person’s healing journey.
If and when the media does share details of a person who has caused harm, it is the public’s responsibility to not shun or shame them. If we do share information about someone who has caused harm, it should only be to ensure the safety and well-being of said person or those around them.
When we hear stories like those mentioned above, we should not debate whether individuals deserve to die for their actions or suggest that they can never change. These are carceral beliefs and a society that acts this way cannot be a breeding ground for abolition. We should be pushing to dissolve prisons, not acting like cops to each other.
It’s not just a problem with the younger generation either. No one is immune to it. In fact, this behaviour of airing someone’s dirty laundry is deeply ingrained in political smear campaigns.
This isn’t accountability. This is harassment.
Second chances mean that even abusers deserve the supports they need to get better and get by. This doesn’t just mean access to professional care — it also means friendships, job opportunities, and simple kindness. There is nothing a person could do to make me think they do not deserve to have these basic needs met.
Second chances aren’t about people who were harmed needing to forgive their abuser — they’re about the fact that people who have caused harm still deserve resources and support to avoid perpetuating further harm. These supports don’t have to be repeatedly granted by the same individuals, but they need to exist.
That is what community care is all about. Compassion. Empathy. Being there. Both the people who have caused harm and the people who have experienced harm deserve access to this healing.
Second chances don’t mean that you have to befriend the person who harmed you. It doesn’t mean that the person who was harmed’s story is invalid or unimportant. It doesn’t mean that you personally have to give them a second chance. When we respond to harm with carceral techniques, it’s not justice. It moves us further from abolition. We can hold space for victims while holding space for people who have caused harm. We can hold people accountable while making sure they have the supports they need.
Abolition is about community stepping up, not creating a punitive system of its own. Abolition is understanding that some people might need third chances — or fourth or fifth ones — but still honouring that, and helping people stand, especially at their lowest moments.
Abolition is treating others with compassion. Second chances are the first step.
Adrienne Maree Brown: We Will Not Cancel Us
Clementine Morrigan: Fuck the Police Means We Don’t Act Like Cops to Each Other
Megan Wray (she/her) is a bisexual, biracial Japanese-Canadian poet and freelance writer based on Treaty 1 Territory. Her creative work revolves around the intersections of her identity, and she believes that writing is an act of resistance.