How ‘Alternatives to Incarceration’—Like Probation—Expand Criminalization

In September, an Iowa judge sentenced Pieper Lewis, a Black teenager who was trafficked and sexually assaulted, to community supervision after she pleaded guilty to stabbing one of her abusers to death. Some hailed the sentence as compassionate. But facts about supervision say otherwise.

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How ‘Alternatives to Incarceration’—Like Probation—Expand Criminalization

In September, an Iowa judge sentenced Pieper Lewis, a Black teenager who was trafficked and sexually assaulted, to community supervision after she pleaded guilty to stabbing one of her abusers to death. Some hailed the sentence as compassionate. But facts about supervision say otherwise.

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

In 2020, Pieper Lewis was a 15-year-old from Des Moines, Iowa, who’d fled an abusive home only to be preyed upon by an adult man and subsequently trafficked. That year, Lewis fatally stabbed one of her abusers, a 37-year-old man named Zachary Brooks, in what she has always maintained was an act of self-defense. 

Lewis’s case made national headlines in September of this year, when she was ordered to pay $150,000 to Brooks’s family, despite the fact that Lewis says Brooks had confined and abused her. On Sept. 13, Polk County District Court Judge David M. Porter sentenced Lewis, then 17, to five years of probation without early release and 200 hours of community service a year for three years, and ordered her to be placed at the Fresh Start Women’s Center in Des Moines, where she would wear a GPS tracking device, pending a deferred judgment. The story gained further notoriety when a GoFundMe for Lewis surpassed the restitution amount, raising more than half a million dollars. 

Lewis’s case stands out not only for the abundance of support she has received online but for the fact that, unlike many other criminalized survivors, she was not originally sentenced to prison. Commentary on the case, as well as the GoFundMe copy, has suggested that Porter’s sentence was “compassionate” or one that would help Lewis avoid prison. Yet less than two months after this sentence was delivered, Lewis allegedly cut off her ankle monitor and fled the women’s center, strongly suggesting that she herself did not find her “alternative” to incarceration particularly humane or compassionate. She was rearrested on Nov. 8

The original sentence Lewis received, although meant to keep her out of prison in the immediate future, assigned her to a correctional services facility where she was mandated to pay rent. The GPS monitor she was supposed to wear in the facility placed her in a digital prison, restricting her ability to travel and monitoring where she was at all times. Media Justice, an organization working to end the use of electronic monitoring systems (EMS), reports that the use of EMS has no proven effectiveness in reducing the likelihood of people on supervision ending up in prison, arguing that switching out prison for carceral technology functions more as a means to police behavior than to provide support. And lastly, although judgment on her case was deferred, if Lewis failed to participate in the center’s programs sufficiently, if she re-offended, or if she was otherwise unable to meet the conditions of her deferred judgment, she could likely be ordered to prison after all—as subsequent events have shown. Under supervision, Lewis was once again at great risk of being criminalized, just as she had been while awaiting trial.

The logic of community supervision as an “alternative to incarceration” (ATI) is irrational and relies on the subjective paternalism of judges and prosecutors. A probation violation does not mean that someone deserves to go to prison, yet many ATI sentences hand power over a survivor’s future choices to a complex network of correctional service providers. The criminalization of poverty, homelessness, substance use, gender nonconformity, and sex work have contributed to the expansions of policing that target Black and undocumented youth disproportionately. For criminalized survivors in particular, walking the tightrope of probationary restrictions—including strict reporting requirements and regular court fees—can put survival out of reach and result in a level of “permanent criminality.” Supposedly “compassionate” alternatives can keep someone trapped in poverty and chained to the legal system for much of their lives.

It is undoubtedly better to have the opportunity to not go to prison. Basing advocacy or demands for reform, however, on such a scarcity of imagination creates the conditions for prison by other names. The experiences that led up to Lewis’s act of self-defense indicate a cascading set of failures on the part of institutions that were designed to protect her. In light of these failures, Judge Porter claimed the sentence would ensure that she would not go “back into the lifestyle that you thus far left.” Yet the immense pressure of supervision—particularly if her crowdfunding campaign had been unsuccessful—may have just as easily left Lewis incapable of leaving this incident behind, as it so often does. 

Like others who have defended themselves against abusers, Lewis’s experiences before this case suggest that she survived abandonment and violence across multiple societal and carceral systems, including her family, the police, youth and shelter services, and the courts. In Lewis’s case, her interactions with systems of policing began early on, in foster care and then as an adoptee at age 3. Many adoptees and survivors of foster care have highlighted how supposed “child welfare” industries collude with carceral-therapeutic services and police to produce what can better be referred to as the “family policing system.” Scholars like Dorothy Roberts, who advocate for the abolition of family policing, have said that the high number of Black children who find themselves in “need” of adoption is by design. Roberts has written that many “child welfare” systems and policies instead prey upon low-income Black families. 

According to Lewis’s plea deal, she fled her home three times in 2020 because of her unstable home life. A doctor who testified during her trial stated that her adoptive mother had been emotionally abusive. During Lewis’s second attempt to leave, she stayed at Youth Emergency Services Shelter, where she was sexually assaulted. Abuse is not uncommon within systemically under-funded shelter services.

That an “alternative” like probation could be seen as a helpful program to a sexual-assault survivor criminalized for defending herself is farcical. After receiving her sentence, Lewis joined almost 4 million people in the U.S. who are on probation or parole, also known as “community supervision” programs. Criminalized survivors, who often have limited networks of support and who often provide care to others and therefore don’t have flexibility in their schedules, are particularly failed by such traumatic forms of carceral control. Fees, program participation, submission to drug testing, abiding by curfews, and finding and maintaining employment are just some of the aspects of supervision that set people up to fail. A technical violation often means jail. For criminalized survivors who are undocumented, disabled, or pregnant, movement restrictions can have life-threatening consequences.

Recently, some politicians and advocacy groups have suggested expanding the use of ATIs in response to demands to defund or decarcerate the country’s punishment systems, but such programs are not a solution. Lewis’s ordeal in particular shows that ATIs are often synonymous with imprisonment—and that they function as expansions of the prison industrial complex (PIC). Thus, laws and campaigns that favor ATIs in sentencing reinforce the legitimacy of prosecution and correctional control and sustain bureaucracies oriented around keeping people in the criminal legal system. ATIs themselves are a reform and, as such, are extremely limited in how much they can reduce mass criminalization. 

Choices between prison or another form of imprisonment are not ones based on visions that prioritize freedom, healing, and self-determination. Those in positions to develop decarceral policies and institutions, as well those organizing to end the PIC, should resist being misled into thinking that correctional “services” can correct for organized abandonment, a term abolitionist writer Ruth Wilson Gilmore uses to refer to the manifold consequences of capitalism, white supremacy, and cisheteropatriarchy—the sort of abandonment typically experienced by survivors at the intersections of these forces. 

Like other criminalized survivors, such as Bresha Meadows, Cyntoia Brown, Chrystul Kizer, and Tracy McCarter, Pieper Lewis had an experience that highlights the utter incapability of the carceral state to solve the structural issues of anti-Blackness, gender violence, childhood abuse, and houselessness. Of course, Lewis’s case and life are ongoing—she is an imperfect victim and the solutions for abuse, trafficking, and sexual violence are not simple. But a starting point is to prioritize the protection of Black youth and survivors. Simply being “better than prison” is not an effective measure of justice, and it is even less so when we recognize that “alternatives” are leading millions—like Pieper Lewis—back toward incarceration.

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