How to Spot Copaganda (w/ Alex Karakatsanis)


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Alec Karakatsanis is one of the country's most forceful and persuasive critics of the criminal punishment system. Alec is the founder and executive director of Civil Rights Corps, and as a civil rights lawyer he has fought against the vicious punishment system that cages the poor and plunges them into debt. Alec's work as a lawyer has been covered in the New York Times and he was recently a guest on the Daily Show. Alec's book Usual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System is a stirring indictment of the legal system.

Today, Alec joins editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson to discuss "copaganda," and how media narratives about crime and policing keep us from having an intelligent conversation on how to reduce violence in our society. We discuss:

  • The human reality of mass incarceration, including the wage slavery, family separation, and sexual violence, and how sentencing someone to prison takes years off their life
  • Why tough on crime policies are not tough on crime: jailing people makes crime worse, not better, and Alec argues that responding to violence with more police and prisons is so irrational that it should be compared to climate science denial
  • How only certain kinds of theft are considered crimes, and why we focus on shoplifting while ignoring civil asset forfeiture by police and wage theft by employers
  • How Democratic politicians have completely failed to make the case for real public safety and keep falling back on failed, racist "tough on crime" policies
  • Why inflammatory anecdotes about individual crimes are a bad way to assess whether a given reform policy is working
  • What we actually need to do if we want to reduce violence
  • Why we shouldn't treat people who hurt people as mere "criminals" who have to be locked in cages
  • How people can learn to read news reports critically and watch to see when they are being subtly influenced to support punitive policies that will actually make problems worse

Alec's Copaganda newsletter can be read here. Alec's Current Affairs article responding to Matthew Yglesias' argument that we need more police is here. Alec's contentious exchange with Ana Kasparian of the Young Turks on criminal punishment is here.

"One of the most profoundly depressing aspects of my current job leading a national civil rights organization is that I often find myself in conversation with Democratic politicians. And by and large, these people are profoundly lost. They have no sense of what the actual evidence is on these issues is, and that's largely because they don't care. They have no sense of how to speak about these issues in a way that's compelling. They don't understand how to build a popular political project that actually brings to people the things they want and need to flourish." — Alec Karakatsanis

"Jails are what we call 'criminogenic'—they lead people to commit more crime in the future. So when you jail someone you are actually making it more likely they will commit crime in the future. As opposed to, for example, trying to understand what led that person to come into the criminal system and trying to address the needs that they and their community have." — Alec Karakatsanis

"There's this tendency to define people who've committed a crime as bad people. And they committed a crime because of that evil. That just fundamentally, in my experience, misunderstands human behavior. The vast majority of times when people hurt each other in our society it is not because the person is irredeemably bad, but because of very particular circumstances in which they found themselves. And we have control to a large extent over those circumstances." Alec Karakatsanis

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