Prison reform has become a priority in America’s movements for social and racial justice. Is reform also the key to reducing violence in society? Danielle Sered started and leads Common Justice, America’s only “alternative to prison” program for people charged in the adult criminal courts with violent offenses like assault, robbery, and even attempted murder. We talked with her about the facts and fictions of violence and incarceration in America today.
What does it mean to try to “end violence”?
At Common Justice, we envision a world without violence, then work to make it possible, fully aware that we aren’t likely to achieve it in our lifetimes. What we know is that to begin to achieve that goal, we have to deal with the fact that structural and interpersonal violence are connected. Unless overall systems support well-being, access to good housing, education, living wages, and health care, we can expect more interpersonal violence. And despite what we are taught about safety, we know that one of the greatest causes of violence in our society is prison.
So the prison system, which is supposed to punish some for violence, and protect others from it, is actually increasing violence?
Some say prison reduces violence, some that it doesn’t. What is certainly true, however, is that prison produces violence. For everyone, the main drivers of violence on an individual level are shame, isolation, exposure to violence, and poverty. We have baked our response to violence with exactly the same ingredients that create it. We’ve showed up at a burning house with a hose full of gasoline.
Are there viable alternatives to incarceration?
Society wants safety. We know that meaningful accountability—not punishment—creates safety. Good solutions to violence will always be survivor-centered. If you actually ask survivors of crime what they want, they almost always prefer to see the person who hurt them take responsibility and change rather than just be punished. It’s not just compassion, it’s pragmatism. They know incarceration doesn’t work, they see the toll in their neighborhoods and lives. So if they are offered an alternative that might work they take it.
Common Justice operates an alternative to incarceration for serious and violent felonies in the adult courts. It’s a restorative justice model in which the one who caused harm makes things right with the people they’ve hurt and goes through intensive violence intervention. When they fulfill the commitments they make to those they’ve harmed, they don’t go to prison. The felony charges against them are dismissed. And in the meantime, we provide wraparound services to the survivors of those crimes to help them come through what happened to them and in their lives, generally.
After a decade of doing this and seeing the results, we can say that it works. Fewer than 8% of our participants have been terminated from the program for new crimes. You’d be hard pressed to find a prison that could come anywhere close to those results.
How does your approach relate to mass incarceration overall?
More than 50% of people incarcerated in the United States are imprisoned for crimes of violence. So dealing with violent offenses must be part of the overall solution to over-incarceration. Everyone should understand that mass incarceration was not some proportionate response to a huge rise in violence, but the result of policy decisions. Today we have more than 2.3 million people in prison—a three- or fourfold increase within many of our lifetimes. Aspiring to an America with fewer than a half million people in prison is not wildly visionary—it was the reality in the 1970s.
How do you change the thinking behind those policy decisions?
The media portrays a highly racialized, distorted, artificial picture of violence. Most people, especially survivors, know that the system doesn’t work. So the problem is not changing hearts and minds, but making sure this majority view is prominent in the public discourse. At Common Justice, we only take cases if the survivors agree. And 90% choose Common Justice. But when we ask, survivors guess that only 5-10% would make the choice. How is it possible for people in a 90% majority to see themselves as a minority? Our job is to make the 90% consensus visible. A recent forward.us study found that one in two Americans was close to someone who had been incarcerated. Not the best friend’s father, not the neighbor—but a true loved one. So now half of Americans have direct experience with the failed system. The old story doesn’t hold.
Restorative justice is a growing field today. Who are your partners and allies?
In New Orleans, the organization VOTE, which stands for Voice Of The Experience, run by Norris Henderson, is a guiding light dramatically reducing incarceration in the South. In the restorative justice arena, we learn all the time from teachers like Mariame Kaba, Fania Davis, Cheryl Graves, sujatha baliga],and Ashlee George. Andrea James’s work at the National Council of Current and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls is formidable and essential. Ebony Underwood at We Got Us Now organizes children of incarcerated parents. In New York, the Alliance of Families For Justice run by Soffiyah Elijah works with families of the incarcerated. Without this constellation surrounding us, Common Justice’s work would have no chance at making its contribution.
What about this work most energizes you?
I love fighting for, not against. Social justice work often entails fighting against, fighting to reduce the terror, seek a lesser pain, a shorter sentence, less brutality, less hunger, less homelessness. I feel fortunate to be in this movement and have the role of building something up, both a practical solution and within the movement itself.
Danielle Sered is an Ashoka Fellow. You can read more about her and her work here.