Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Abolitionist Prosecution: a tribute to Christian Champagne


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

June 29, 2016


                Last night my son-in-law, Christian Champagne, was elected District Attorney of the 3rd Judicial District of a three-county area in the southwest corner of Colorado.  He defeated a local tribal prosecutor with over 20 years of prosecution experience at state and federal levels, who accused Christian of being soft on crime, 66-34%.

                Christian (and Jill’s and my daughter Katy) moved to Durango in 2005, when Christian took his first job out of law school at a state public defender.  Three years later, Todd Risberg was elected as a reform district attorney (and re-elected to the second of a two-term limit) and appointed Christian to be his first assistant.  On one hand in his trial work, he has earned support that includes family members of victims of child sexual assault by getting convictions and substantial prison sentences for what ICOPA (International Conference on Penal Abolition) co-founder Ruth Morris called “the dangerous few.”  On the other hand, he has taken the lead in establishing options to incarceration such as pre-trial release screening, restorative justice/mediation programs in courts and in schools, drug courts, and youth programs coordinated by La Plata County Youth Services, now directed by Jill’s and my daughter Katy—all of which serve to keep families together and economically integrated into the community.  As I could see among Christian’s ardent supporters, the prevailing sentiment throughout the judicial district is that people do feel both protected and safer thanks to Todd and Christian’s leadership.

                I am always concerned that diversionary program’s like those in Christian’s district will, in Stan Cohen’s words, ultimately “widen the net” of incarceration, as diversion programs grow to include those who otherwise would not have been prosecuted at all, some of whom “fail” and acquire prior records that subject them to special scrutiny, and so become “recidivists.”  In La Plata County (Durango is the county seat), Todd Risberg’s coming to office coincided with jail monitoring by the county criminal justice coordinating committee, which had tried unsuccessfully to block the building of a new county jail.  Katy tells me that the committee abandoned monitoring the jail population several years ago, shifting priorities to community program development because the new jail had become, as it remains, largely empty, with closed cell blocks.

                Christian’s take on prosecution—that community safety including victim support and protection is his paramount responsibility—brings to mind something of a divide among penal abolition, as reflected in ICOPA 16 just held in Quito, Ecuador:

Political activists for abolishing the inherently racist, classist, ageist state structure called the criminal justice system, including prisoners, are central to all of us in ICOPA.  To me, to borrow Karl Marx’s, their voice and collective power is a vital step toward emancipation from human exploitation, at its worst in mass incarceration.  Political structures both reflect and affect how we define and respond to human differences, to conflict, to violence.  To those whose unwavering focus is on political change, on abolishing the state, to work in or with the system is to be co-opted, and in a case like mine personally, a product of white privilege (as it may well be).

From a political point of view, I myself have continually hypothesized that creating so-called diversion programs to keep people out of jail and prison is potentially counter-productive—that such programs expand further feed the incarceration monster.  I am also an empiricist who allows experience to disconfirm my beliefs, as mass decarceration the district attorney’s office has helped achieve under Todd and Christian’s leadership.

Marx saw political emancipation as a step toward human emancipation from exploitation and violence of us all toward others—emancipation from depending on some of us being entitled to punish or exploit others more than they are entitled to punish or exploit us for our social sins—as a historical step from political to transformation of the culture of power over others into power sharing.  I see political and cultural transformation as interdependent, as in Norway, where sustained mass decarceration in the 19th century followed sustained demilitarization as the Napoleonic War ended and Norway became independent from Denmark, six centuries after Viking colonization had reached its peak.

I think Marx (Chairman Mao in China too, for that matter) was wrong in supposing that political and cultural transformation of oppression and violence are necessarily, historically sequential.  In Norway, for example, low rates of incarceration coincide with democratization of adult-child relations at home and in school (including a ban on corporal punishment by anyone, anywhere).  I postulate that changes in the ways we respond to conflict and violence in any social setting can become well learned and fruitful enough to generalize to any and all of our relations.  So it is that in formally cooperative structures, decision-making can be hierarchical and discipline punitive, while in formally hierarchical organizations, decision-making can be cooperative and discipline restorative.  This is so because in reality there is considerable diversity among us in how we respond to problems we have with each other, although in a political culture as hierarchical and punitive as the US, it is the formally cooperative or democratic structures that are most likely to be corrupted by the drive to establish order of some over others.  Indeed in a political culture where domination and punishment prevail over power-sharing, power corrupts, and in my country, prosecutors are notoriously “tough on crime.”

I am devoted to identifying and celebrating cultural transformation—defiance of political expectations—where I come upon it.  It happens that in US common-law based criminal justice systems, prosecutors occupy the structurally most central, most powerful discretion over whether incarceration grows or declines.  The substantial, continuing mass reduction of incarceration in Colorado’s 3rd Judicial District demonstrates the potential prosecutors have to transform the entire system of incarceration.  It shows that when prosecutors pursue that vision, their constituents become energized to support them, and to become party to making incarceration unnecessary, as they become safer together.  Lo and behold, the kind of prosecution I call peacemaking works.  Prosecutors take note: I can also make you pretty popular in a community that working together, makes you all become safer and more secure.

From the time I became a student public defender in law school until Christian became one, I never imagined I could feel professionally close to and admiring of a prosecutor’s work, one whose professional relations mirror the relations he and Katy have with their children.  What a wonderful surprise.  May the peacemaking path that Todd, Christian and the staff of the district attorney’s office here in southwest Colorado have taken, and the community support they have received, inspire prosecutors elsewhere to do likewise if they have not, and inspire us of the general public to recognize and appreciate those who have.  In prosecution as in everyday relations, peacemaking works, and where it prevails, we decarcerate…and it works for all of us.  Thank you Christian.  Love and peace, hal

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Sixteenth International Conference on Penal Abolition


Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, Quito, Ecuador, June 16-18, 2016


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at



                A major gift I have received at every ICOPA in which I have participated[i] is for local activists to present the rest of us with the primary problems of violence and punishment generally and state violence and incarceration particularly which they face, and seek to transform.

                The most profound knowledge I bring home to the US from ICOPA 16 comes from the testimony of mothers trapped into serving as mules or couriers for drug cartels, alongside testimony from their families, activists and human rights lawyers, as ultimate victims of warriors trained, sponsored and corrupted by US wars on drugs.  The mothers initially agree to carry a drug shipment, most commonly to Europe, out of a desperate need to feed their families.  They represent an ethnic rainbow of those who live in poverty, but are primarily indigenous.  They are forced to continue serving as couriers by cartels who threaten otherwise to kill their families.  As in all wars, women and children are the ultimate victims of drug wars—fought by police, (para-)military forces and judges trained and funded by the School of the Americas and its successors in the US, often in US-based privatized prisons, stirred on by US drug enforcement agents (with some exceptions, as in Bolivia where President Evo Morales expelled them).

                 I came to ICOPA 16 well aware of the racist depictions of Chinese and Latin American immigrants that led heroin, cocaine and marijuana to become the basic targets of US drug enforcement.  I had known in theory that underclass young people of color pay by far the largest price for inherently counterproductive drug wars.  I owe it to the organizers of ICOPA 16 to know for real and personally that once again, as in all patriarchal, militarized worlds, it is the mothers who are enslaved into trafficking and their children whom our US-sponsored drug warriors supply to fill beds in US-built and operated prisons.

                At one of the conference sessions featuring the plight of mothers in prison, on “prison and drug use,” I asked the panelists whether they shared a vision of legalizing heroin, cocaine, and marijuana.  I mentioned several examples: heroin maintenance first introduced in Switzerland in 1994 after methadone “treatment” had failed, cocaine use as when I chewed coca leaves in Bolivia to climb hills without getting winded, or as extracted from the leaves (which are sent to Coca Cola to be blended with caffeine, and still, extract of the kola nut which has never been criminalized) for dental and medical use in the US, or marijuana as now legalized in several US states.  Ecuadoran human rights attorney Ernesto Pazmiño responded that an effort was being made to legalize marijuana possession and growth for personal use.  I had lunch with a family member and an activist from the region who were quite interested in how various West European countries had decriminalized and legalized drug use and possession.

                Throughout the world, the largest single contributor to incarceration is the detention of underclass people of color for drug possession and trafficking.   As drug wars have expanded, in the US as now I see in Latin America, young mothers of color have become those whose incarceration rate has climbed fastest, have become the leading bounty of our drug wars.  It is so obviously, uncontrovertibly the leading product of all our drug wars as to legally constitute the intended, primary product of our drug wars, to constitute the war crime of racially, primarily, targeting innocent underclass children and their de facto enslaved mothers, to fill prison beds in wars where failure to control drugs justifies escalation.  You might well say that this is drug warriors’ primary accomplishment.

                Because drug wars are the single greatest contributor to incarceration, understanding the history of drug wars and the effects of drug use have been a primary interest of mine since I entered criminology.  In our article on “Controlling Drug Use” (Criminal Justice Policy Review 13, no. 1, 21-31, March 2002; pdf available on request), I join Kevin Whiteacre in taking a public health or “peacemaking” approach to drug control, where drug users become one another’s primary source of information on good and ill effects of ways drugs are used, alongside information “authoritative sources” have to offer, where treatment for ill effects is available—all in all, efforts at harm reduction instead of prohibition.  Opiates including heroin, coca(ine) and marijuana and its derivatives are not inherently good or bad. As with all substances we eat, drink and inhale, it is the preparation, amount and administration of these drugs that makes the difference.  Unlike many pharmaceuticals and other things we consume, heroin and marijuana are not even inherently toxic; it is only when they are contaminated for illicit distribution that they may become poisonous—another argument for legalization.

                As a US citizen, a criminologist, and an educator, I feel a special responsibility to offer Latin Americans whatever testimony, consultation or assistance I might in drug cases, in political discussions, and in educational settings, regarding the neo-colonial history, politics and counterproductivity of drug prohibition, and positive ways to prevent and treat adverse effects of drug use as public health policy; just as I have long felt a special obligation to raise awareness in the violence and human destruction of the drug wars we launch and sponsor, which fall most heavily on economically desperate mothers and children of color everywhere.  I am especially grateful to the organizers and Latin American participants at ICOPA 16 for featuring this as the most egregious problem of “criminal justice” they face, for which we of the US are primarily responsible.  The first political step to making peace with drug use is noticing and recognizing the harm done by US-led wars on drugs; the challenge is to change course.  Criminologists are fond of ranking the seriousness of crime and violence.  As far as I’m concerned, the violence done to women in Latin America for drug trafficking, and their children, is as serious as organized violence and crime can get.  Special thanks to ICOPA 16 organizers and participants for making this reality so plain and personal.  Love and peace, hal


[i] I have participated in every prior ICOPA from ICOPA 3 in 1987 to ICOPA 14, missing ICOPA 15 in Ottawa due to family obligations.  I organized ICOPA 5 in Bloomington, Indiana, USA, in 1991, where the conference program was grounded in the healing traditions, and experience particularly of incarceration, of indigenous peoples of North America.

Friday, June 24, 2016

My debt to Richard Quinney


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

June 24, 2016


                Dragan Milovanovic and Clem Bartollas have asked members of the American Society of Criminology (ASC) to submit their memories of Richard Quinney and his work for a biography they are writing.  They will select quotes from the many contributions they receive to include in Richard’s professional life story.

                I am grateful to Dragan and Clem for the opportunity to reflect on how much Richard Quinney’s friendship, example and insights have given me.  I have sent them much more than the short paragraph they requested; their story of Richard is theirs to tell.  Meanwhile, I wanted to share in its entirety my account of how much Richard has contributed to my life and understanding.  I have just sent this remembrance to Dragan and to Richard, which I want to share in its entirety:


                Once my dissertation proposal had been approved and I had started my fieldwork on “Police Patrolmen’s Decisions to Report Offenses,” I started teaching my first of two classes as a visiting assistant professor, “Introduction to Criminal Justice,” at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, winter quarter 1971.  I assigned two texts:  the president’s crime commission report, and Richard Quinney’s newly published The Social Reality of Crime.  Having come out of an ungraded high school, I also announced to the class of 250 that I was giving all A’s because I didn’t believe in grades.  I then went to the curriculum committee to request that my courses, in fairness, be listed as pass/fail.  As a result, I was notified that I would have to leave the U of M at the end of the next academic year.

                And so I was job hunting the spring of 1972 as I finished my dissertation, when the NIMH  doctoral students in sociology invited Richard Quinney (then NIMH director in sociology at NYU), John Kitsuse, and Laud Humphreys to offer a symposium on research in deviance.  As it happened, Richard’s Social Reality of Crime, and Kitsuse and Cicourel’s "A note on the official uses of statistics" (Social Problems 11, Fall 1963: 132-139 had provided theoretical grounding and justification for my study of how police constructed crime statistics (and Laud Humphreys persuaded me to apply to my next job at SUNY-Albany, which he left as I arrived).

                I warmed to Richard immediately, as he warmed to me.  I was to learn from graduate students of his like David Friedrichs and Joe Scimecca that he was this way with all of his students:  mentoring, encouraging them on their own intellectual journeys, and ever stimulating to hear and exchange views with.  He would visit me and my wife (Jill Bystydzienski) in Albany, and after I moved to Indiana in 1976, I would repeatedly visit him and Solveig, first in DeKalb, from which he first took me to visit his homestead in Wisconsin, then in Madison, where I would visit on occasion during the years (1998-2006) that I was commuting to be with Jill at Iowa State in Ames, and he, meanwhile, would stay with Jill and me from time to time in Bloomington, and visit the IU CJ department, including my classes (where once he asked me to play “Mr. Bojangles” as he talked about meaning in folk music).

                As I look back, the time and exchanges of writing I did with Richard after moving to Indiana, beginning in the late seventies, were crucial to my forming an answer to the question my students so often asked me in and out of class:  “Okay, Hal, you’re so critical of the system; what do you want instead?”   The question was most appropriate for the newly created, required criminal justice course I began teaching the spring of 1977—“alternative social control systems.”  Meanwhile, Richard was writing on the implications of Paul Tillich’s Christianity of love, then becoming a practicing Buddhist who now, as a criminologist, sought to spread compassion in the face of violence.  I recall being on the ASC executive board in 1983 when Richard was recommended for the Sutherland Award, that some thought he had stopped being a social scientist; I also recall rising to the defense of his intellectual development; he got the award.

                Richard’s and my conversations helped me address my students’ challenge.  When I returned to Norway (where I had spent the last year of secondary school, 1961-62) in 1986 particularly to spend time with Nils Christie, it was to study Norway, relative to the US, as a “peaceful society.”  As we corresponded, Richard suggested we put out a call at the 1987 ASC meeting for contributions to an edited volume, which he proposed to call Criminology as Peace.  I suggested that “peace” connoted a utopian state of being, while practically speaking, we were taking about an open-ended process of change, and so we agreed to call the book Criminology as Peacemaking.  Richard’s opening chapter invoked Buddhism to call for an end to suffering.  In the concluding chapter, I drew on the contributed chapters to define the paradigm I follow to this day, of studying and trying to practice transformation of violence by peacemaking, rather than fighting crime and criminality.  Richard helped me notice and use the many words we have for peacemaking:  compassion, empathy, love…

                True to himself, Richard has since documented his own journey into the meanings of life.  We see each other less often since I have moved back home to Ohio.  It happens that Richard and I are both close in spirit to Norwegians, in his case to Solveig.  In that culture, years may pass in which you have no contact, but as with mariners of yore, every time we are in touch, as we recently have been on email, I feel as close, as interested, and as deeply appreciative for all he has taught and given me, for his and Solveig’s generosity, as ever.


                …and so, Richard, thank you!                                      Love and peace, hal