Washington Law Review


Since the 1960s, the “criminal justice system” has operated as the common label for a vast web of actors and institutions. But as critiques of mass incarceration have entered the mainstream, academics, activists, and advocates increasingly have stopped referring to the “criminal justice system.” Instead, they have opted for critical labels—the “criminal legal system,” the “criminal punishment system,” the “prison industrial complex,” and so on. What does this re-labeling accomplish? Does this change in language matter to broader efforts at criminal justice reform or abolition? Or does an emphasis on labels and language distract from substantive engagement with the injustices of contemporary criminal law?

In this Article, I examine that move to abandon the “criminal justice system” as a means of describing U.S. institutions of criminal law and its enforcement. I identify three alternative labels that are gaining traction in academic and activist circles: the “criminal legal system,” the “criminal punishment system,” and the “prison industrial complex.” I argue that each of these new labels reflect not only a different vision of U.S. criminal law but also a different vision of what is wrong with it. My goal in this Article is not to advocate for a correct, new label. Rather, it is to explain how the different names provide a window into different ways of understanding how the United States punishes and controls individuals and communities. Identifying an alternate label (or opting to retain the “criminal justice system”) should force much-needed reflection about what makes criminal institutions distinct from other institutions of governance. And such clarity should be essential to any project of reform or abolition.

This Article contributes to three literatures. First, it is a part of a larger project of unpacking how people, and particularly legal elites, talk about and understand criminal law. Second, this Article contributes to the literature that examines the boundaries of criminal law and the ways in which criminal legal institutions interact with ostensibly non-criminal ones. Third, and relatedly, this Article contributes to the critical literature on siloing in scholarship and activism. By emphasizing the fuzzy boundaries of the “criminal justice system,” I hope to stress that studying and mobilizing against the injustices of the U.S. criminal legal apparatus requires grappling with a host of diverse legal doctrines and sociopolitical forces.

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