On March 30, 1981—fewer than 100 days into his first term—United States President Ronald Reagan exited the Hilton hotel in Washington, D.C., surrounded by Secret Service. As he passed a cheering crowd of admirers who had gathered behind a rope line, a series of six gunshots rang out in quick succession. Five of the bullets missed the president, instead hitting two members of his protection detail as well as his press secretary. The sixth ricocheted off the armored exterior of the presidential limousine, hitting Reagan in the left underarm and puncturing a lung. The president was rushed to the George Washington University Hospital, where he recovered from the attack and was released on April 11.
The man who pulled the trigger was a 25-year-old Texan named John Hinckley, Jr. On June 16, 2022—more than 41 years after his attempt on Reagan’s life—Hinckley was granted unconditional release from court oversight, following several years of progressively easing restrictions. In his first interview after securing his full freedom, Hinckley expressed his “true remorse” for the shooting and apologized to the victims, stating of his younger self that “psychologically, that person is dead” and that “I’m a completely different person in mind and spirit.”
Unsurprisingly, Hinckley’s attempted assassination of one of the American left’s most reviled political enemies–coupled with his undeniably entertaining (and at times heartwarmingly earnest) Twitter presence–has made him something of a 21st-century folk hero for many online leftists. The well-known irony, of course, is that Hinckley’s attempted assassination of Reagan was not motivated by any sort of principled ideological opposition to the former president’s abhorrent political agenda—in fact, Hinckley’s initial target was Reagan’s predecessor, Jimmy Carter. On the contrary, what drove Hinckley to take such extreme action was a violent, pedophilic obsession with then-child actress Jodie Foster, with whom he had grown infatuated after seeing her play a twelve-year-old sex trafficking victim in the 1976 Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver. He went on to stalk her obsessively, making numerous unwanted attempts to contact her and even going so far as to enroll in a writing course at Yale, where Foster was a freshman.
It is a matter of uncontested historical fact that Hinckley suffered from an array of severe mental illnesses—he was experiencing acute psychosis at the time of the attack, and psychiatrists who evaluated him following his arrest diagnosed him with an array of conditions including schizotypal personality, narcissistic personality, and major depression. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity in June 1982, and transferred into psychiatric commitment at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. In the charged political atmosphere of the 1980s, with the ascendant right wing’s “law and order” messaging approaching its rhetorical zenith, the backlash to Hinckley’s acquittal was, predictably, swift and severe. The verdict prompted a nationwide overhaul of standards for the insanity plea, with the burden of proof shifting from the prosecution to the defense and some states going so far as to abolish the insanity plea altogether.
After Hinckley’s unconditional release in June, the Chicago Tribune ran an op-ed which claimed that “the release of John Hinckley shows the system works.” The author’s unsurprisingly liberal position on the American carceral state is best summed up by the following line in the second-to-last paragraph: “For criminals with functional brains, prison may be a fair punishment and a powerful deterrent. For offenders enslaved by mental illness, however, it amounts to pointless cruelty.”
Indeed, it is easy to understand how someone who holds the misguided view that the criminal legal system is a flawed but ultimately reformable institution (rather than a fundamentally irredeemable instrument of white supremacist state violence) might see Hinckley’s rehabilitation and release as a vindication of the carceral state’s rehabilitative potential. Such a position, however, misses the mark altogether.
In addition to being white, Hinckley also came from considerable means, having been born in 1955 to a wealthy oil family. This is far from a trivial point—it is almost impossible to imagine that someone from a less privileged background, charged with committing the same crime for the same reasons, would have faced any outcome other than being condemned to spend the rest of their life in a maximum-security prison cell. Even if they were fortunate enough to somehow be acquitted, as Hinckley was, on an insanity plea, their experience with the state-run psychiatric treatment system would almost certainly be far different from Hinckley’s—St. Elizabeths, the hospital where Hinckley was committed, has been notorious since the 1960s for overcrowding, understaffing, and inhumane conditions, and a 2017 article in New York Magazine notes that “throughout Hinckley’s tenure, the hospital struggled to maintain its accreditation.” The article also notes that at the time of his commitment, Hinckley was one of the few white patients among the majority-Black hospital population, and “his parents’ affluence and constant attention afforded him things — magazines, tailored clothes — that other patients could not procure.” In other words, when it comes to the rehabilitative potential of “the system,” Hinckley is the exception and not the rule.
There is, however, another way to look at Hinckley’s case—one which sees it not as a vindication of the status quo, but on the contrary, as an indication of what might be possible if we expand our political imaginations. Viewed through this lens, John Hinckley, Jr.’s rehabilitation and release can in fact be understood as a case study in the practical application of abolitionist principles.
At the heart of the abolitionist project lie the unshakable convictions that no human being is irredeemable, that each of our moral worth is defined by more than the worst thing we have ever done, and that a so-called “justice system” which emphasizes punishment over rehabilitation and the reparation of harm is doomed from the outset to fail in its mission of securing justice. The classic objection to this view raised by defenders of the status quo typically comes in the form of a question: “what about the murderers and pedophiles?”
In many ways, Hinckley is a compelling answer to that question. A would-be murderer, driven to violence by a pedophilic obsession with an underage movie star, Hinckley should be a poster child for the anti-abolition objectionists—and yet, the opposite is true. In spite of the countless obstacles to rehabilitation posed by the fundamental structure of the American “justice system” (including the deeply dysfunctional institution of state-administered psychiatric facilities), Hinckley has, by all accounts, been successfully rehabilitated—United States District Judge Paul Friedman’s 2016 opinion ordering that Hinckley be released into the custody of his mother noted that Hinckley had displayed no violent behavior or interest in weapons since 1983, that his primary mental diagnoses had been “in full and sustained remission for well over twenty years,” and that “all of Mr. Hinckley’s treatment providers both at St. Elizabeths Hospital and in Williamsburg now agree—unanimously—that…with certain conditions, he will not be a danger to himself or others.”
When Judge Friedman finally granted Hinckley unconditional release in June, freeing him from the last remaining court restrictions, he reiterated these points and stated that the unconditional release was “probably overdue given the record in this case.” This rehabilitation was, of course, only made possible by decades of intensive treatment and a degree of care that is almost never afforded to individuals who come into contact with the criminal legal system. Most importantly, though, it was made possible by the willingness of those in power to see Hinckley as a human being. In an abolitionist world, everyone—no matter how severe their transgression—would be viewed the same way.
Of course, recovery—whether from injury, addiction, or mental illness—is seldom linear, and even the most ardent abolitionists must take seriously the possibility that even those whom we are able to successfully rehabilitate may, at some point, backslide into their old ways. In Hinckley’s case, however, all available evidence—from the testimonies of his treatment providers to his own expressions of heartfelt remorse—indicates that the odds of such a relapse are low. If they weren’t, he would never have been released in the first place.
Still, abolitionists cannot afford to simply shy away from the question of recidivism. Even in a post-prison future, the possibility of reoffense—like the possibility of offense in the first place—will always remain, and anyone who sincerely believes that doing away with the carceral state will also magically do away with the multitude of harms that our society has labeled as “crimes” is either wilfully ignorant or seriously deluded. However, to hold up the prospect of recidivism as an argument against abolition misses the point entirely. Among the many fatal flaws of the current carceral system is its unshakable belief that it is possible, with a sufficient degree of coercive force and state-sanctioned brutality and dehumanization directed towards the incarcerated, to predict and preempt the possibility of reoffense.
Such an approach, however, is doomed to fail, as it is predicated on the misguided assumption that it is within our power to control the future. What we can control is the approach that we as a society decide to take towards those who have caused harm—whether we choose to treat them from the outset as fundamentally irredeemable and expendable, or to place radical faith in the redemptive possibilities of our shared humanity. The abolitionist project is about opting for the latter. Angela Davis famously wrote in a 2000 essay that “prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings.” John Hinckley, Jr.’s successful rehabilitation and re-entry into society was only possible because the system, in an almost unheard-of display of benevolence, chose not to disappear him—because the judge and jury chose to see him as a human being capable of growth and change, rather than as a depraved monster suitable only to be locked in a cage and denied any shred of human dignity. His case forces us to ask ourselves a crucial question: what might the world look like if we afforded the same compassion to everyone?