Document Type


Publication Title

University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law & Social Change



Publication Date



The theory of carceral abolition entered the mainstream during the 2020 global protests for Black lives. Abolition calls for divestment from carceral institutions like police and prisons in favor of the expansion of social and economic programs that ensure public safety and nurture community well-being. Although there is little scholarship explicitly linking abolition to international human rights, there are scholars and advocates who implicitly echo abolitionist theories by critiquing the international human rights regime's overreliance on criminal law. These critics argue that relying on carceral institutions to address impunity for human rights abuses and promote gender justice does little to combat the underlying causes of human rights violations, unlike interventions that promote economic, social, and political equality. Other human rights advocates also implicitly align with abolitionist theories in calling for the decriminalization of certain behaviors such as HIV/AIDS transmission, sex work, and drug use; as their criminalization leads to human rights abuses against marginalized communities.

This article presents a comparative analysis of carceral abolition, critiques of the carceral emphasis in human rights, and decriminalization human rights advocacy and examines their ideological alignments to provide a theoretical foundation for the practice of what we term "anticarceral human rights advocacy." We define anti-carceral human rights advocacy as the de-emphasis on carceral responses to human rights violations in favor of social and economic interventions that prevent abuse, heal survivors, and transform perpetrators. From this comparative analysis, we offer the following guiding principles for the practice of anti-carceral human rights advocacy: (1) document abuses of carceral systems; (2) do not advocate for solutions to human rights abuses that strengthen carceral systems; (3) elevate economic, social, and cultural rights, non-discrimination, and accountability mechanisms that are not based in retribution but rather in healing and transformation; (4) work closely with global anti-carceral advocates and communities directly impacted by carceral systems; and (5) practice and/or exercise solidarity with decriminalization human rights advocacy. We provide examples of what these guiding principles could look like in practice by analyzing the evolving anti-carceral human rights work of the author-affiliated Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic. Our hope is that this article provides theoretical and practical guidance for human rights advocates who question the ability of carceral systems to prevent and address human rights abuses, and who seek an advocacy framework that can deliver a more expansive vision of justice than carcerality allows.