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Future Hindsight is a weekly podcastthat takes big ideas in civic life and democracy and turns them into action items for everyday citizens.

Jun 24, 2021

Punishment Bureaucracy

The Punishment Bureaucracy defines the array of institutions that powerful members of our society have constructed to enforce their dominance in society. This includes police officers, probation officers, prosecutors, judges, private prisons, companies who profit off prisoners, handcuff and police gear manufacturers, and many others involved in the caging of Americans. Instead of being a justice system, the Punishment Bureaucracy helps maintain the status quo and profits massively from incarceration. 

Who Gets Incarcerated?

Our current system is used for social control, not public safety or preventing crime. Police often justify their existence to protect civilians from violent crime. However, only 4% of all police time is spent on violent crime. Most police time is spent punishing those who cannot afford to pay fines or those in possession of marijuana or other drugs. The most common arrest in the US is driving with a suspended license, and suspension most often occurs when someone can’t afford to pay a court fee. Police spend most of their time controlling sections of the population to protect the interests of elites, not solving crime and arresting criminals.

Justice Reform

Many of the leading ‘criminal justice reformers’ are the same people who built up mass incarceration and the punishment bureaucracy. For example, bail reform from the 1980s has paradoxically resulted in tripling the number of pre-trial detainees. Instead of calling for additional funding for police training or body cameras, we need to increased spending on arts and education, proper mental health counseling, and many other real improvements that improve everyday lives. Our current legal system is designed to control the population; working within that framework is unlikely to yield positive results.


Alec Karakatsanis founded the non-profit Civil Rights Corps and serves as Executive Director.  Before that, he was a civil rights lawyer and public defender with the Special Litigation Division of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia; a federal public defender in Alabama, representing impoverished people accused of federal crimes; and co-founder of the non-profit organization Equal Justice Under Law. Alec is interested in ending human caging, surveillance, the death penalty, immigration laws, war, and inequality. 

He graduated from Yale College in 2005 with a degree in Ethics, Politics, & Economics and Harvard Law School in 2008, where he was a Supreme Court Chair of the Harvard Law Review.

If you’re a teacher or professor assigning this book to your class, be sure to reach out to so that you can get a free copy for your students and for an incarcerated person!    

You can follow him on Twitter @equalityAlec.