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How to curb violence, and mass incarceration, by focusing on crime victims

I first met Danielle Sered last fall when she spoke on a Washington Post Live panel about criminal justice reform (video above). Her ideas, and her practical experience with the Brooklyn-based group Common Justice, struck me as both totally sensible and totally revolutionary. Today, Sered and Common Justice, a project of the Vera Institute of Justice, are releasing a detailed report titled “Accounting for Violence: How to Increase Safety and Break Our Failed Reliance on Mass Incarceration,” based on national research and Sered’s experiences putting crime victims and the people who harm them at the same table, rather than funneling them through conventional prosecution channels. Here, Sered explains how “survivor-centered” approaches can make a difference in both stopping violence and ending America’s overuse of punitive imprisonment.

By Danielle Sered

Over the past thirty years, the United States has grown our use of incarceration to a level that is globally unique and historically unprecedented.  Only recently, we have come to reckon with the limitations of this strategy as a tool to deliver safety.  We have begun to understand its devastating impacts on individuals, families, and communities, and the human and financial cost borne by us all.  But we have largely missed the constituency who, I believe, have paid the greatest price for the failures of mass incarceration: crime survivors.

I have had the opportunity in my work to ask hundreds of crime survivors about what they need from the criminal justice system.  I also have reckoned with my own experience as a survivor of violence, including rape, and as someone who has lost people I love to murder. And what I have found runs contrary to almost every story we have been told about who survivors are and what they want.

Many survivors have a common bottom line.  It’s neither vengeance nor mercy.  It’s safety — for themselves and others.  And on the whole, many survivors no longer believe that prison will deliver them that safety.  A recent robust national poll by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a group that has mobilized survivors around criminal justice reform issues, found that 70 percent of survivors surveyed prefer to see defendants sentenced to alternatives like community supervision and treatment instead of to prison.

In my experience, those preferences hold up even in cases of violence — at least when options are present.  Almost a decade ago,  I founded Common Justice, which develops solutions to violence that meet the needs of crime survivors, advance racial equity, and do not rely on incarceration.  At the core of our work is a restorative justice program that both provides services to survivors of violence and diverts the people who commit these crimes from prison.

Restorative justice brings together those directly impacted by an act of harm to address the impact of the crime, hold the person who did it accountable, and make things as right as possible.  Common Justice is the first of its kind in the adult court system in the United States.  To be considered for enrollment, indicted cases have to be approved by the Brooklyn District Attorney, by the program, and importantly, the survivors of the crimes have to agree.  Once the DA approves a defendant for consideration for Common Justice, we reach out to the victim to offer them services — regardless of their decision— and to see if they want the person who hurt them to be offered Common Justice.  A stunning 90 percent of more than 100 survivors who have been given the choice between seeing the person who harmed them in Common Justice or in prison chose Common Justice.

But why?  It is not, with some moving exceptions, about forgiveness.  Survivors choose this option out of pragmatic self-interest.  For the most part, the survivors we serve — like most survivors — live in neighborhoods where incarceration is common.  And they are not impressed with the results.  They know the temporary removal of someone who has hurt them does not change the conditions that made violence likely in the first place.  They have seen people go away and come back — as 95 percent of people in prison do — and know many return worse than when they left.

During one conversation I had with a survivor who was choosing between incarceration and Common Justice for the person who robbed him, he began drawing a series of boxes on the piece of paper in front of him, marking some with Xes.  I asked him what he was doing.  He said: “The boxes are everyone I know who has returned home from prison.  The Xes are everyone who went back. What did you say your success rate was?” I told him that so far, fewer than 8 percent of people in the program had been terminated for new crimes. He nodded and said: “Let’s do it.”  Or as another survivor summarized his decision,  “I guess at the end of the day, I have to prioritize my safety over my rage.” Unlike in years past, for more and more survivors, no amount of “tough on crime” rhetoric touting the benefits of incarceration for communities can refute their lived experience.

Today, Common Justice is publishing a report, “Accounting for Violence: How to Increase Safety and Break Our Failed Reliance on Mass Incarceration” that outlines what it would take to meet the needs of survivors like these.  In it, we argue that any response to violence should be centered on survivors, based in accountability, driven by safety, and racially equitable.   The report’s recommendations include the elimination of mandatory minimums to make way for alternative options that better meet survivors’ needs and increase safety; the expanded use of restorative justice; the investment of public resources into strategies that target the core drivers of violence—including poverty, housing instability, inequity, and trauma; and the expansion of access to victim services, including ways that don’t require engaging with law enforcement.

As this new political moment unfolds, some people will demand that we reinvigorate our arguably fading commitment to incarceration.  Some politicians will propose regressive “tough on crime” legislation that runs contrary to the evidence about the efficacy of other interventions.  Some police departments will revert to more aggressive strategies focused on punishment rather than prevention.  Some prosecutors—those who see their job as simply securing convictions, rather than justice and safety—will back down from their commitments to innovation.  But others will do something different.  They will heed the call of the people whose lives are stake in our criminal justice policy.  And they will double down on their commitment to end mass incarceration — in survivors’ names.