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To Reduce Prison Population, We Must Confront Violence in Radically New Ways

Author Danielle Sered argues reformers must reckon with violent crime and come up with radically new ways to address it.

A staggering 2.2 million people are locked up in America’s sprawling prison system, and more than half of those currently confined in state prisons have been convicted of violent crime. In order to radically reduce the prison population and transform criminal justice in this country, author and community organizer Danielle Sered argues that reformers must reckon with violent crime and come up with radically new ways to address it. She lays out a path for this transformation in her new unflinching book, Until We Reckon. Sered has spent nearly a decade working directly with people that have committed violent acts and survivors of violence as the executive director of Common Justice, a Brooklyn-based organization that offers alternatives to incarceration for people charged with violent felonies. Her experience anchors her book as she calls for a complete overhaul of the way we’ve been taught to think about crime, punishment and justice. We speak with Sered about restorative justice and how incarceration perpetuates the very violence it is meant to curb.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We end today’s show with criminal justice reform and the fight to end mass incarceration. Criminal justice reform has gained momentum in recent years, with 2020 Democratic presidential candidates vowing to take on the issue, and a number of states across the country tackling everything from cash bail to sentencing reform. But these efforts have focused almost entirely on nonviolent and drug offenses, while sidestepping a problem at the core of what Michelle Alexander calls “America’s addiction to incarceration”: violence. A staggering 2.2 million people are locked up in America’s sprawling prison system, and more than half of those currently confined in state prisons have been convicted of violent crime.

In order to cut the prison population in half and transform criminal justice in this country, our next guest argues that reformers must reckon with violent crime and come up with radically new ways to address it. Danielle Sered lays out a path for this transformation in her new unflinching book titled Until We Reckon. Sered has spent nearly a decade working directly with people who have committed violent acts and survivors of violence as the executive director of Common Justice, a Brooklyn-based organization that offers alternatives to incarceration for people charged with violent felonies. Her experience anchors her book as she calls for a complete overhaul of the way we’ve been taught to think about crime, punishment and justice. She also challenges the notion that prisons keep us safe, revealing instead how incarceration perpetuates the very violence it’s meant to curb.

AMY GOODMAN: Danielle Sered writes in her new book, “If incarceration worked to secure safety, we would be the safest nation in all of human history. We would not be a nation where, by the most conservative estimates available, every year nearly three thousand young men of color are murdered before their twenty-fifth birthday; more than 57,000 children survive sexual violence; nearly half a million women are beaten in their relationships; nearly three million men are robbed or assaulted; countless transgender people are killed for who they are; where every year, we bury our own children, gunned down in our own streets.”

She goes on to write, “Just as we ask people who cause interpersonal violence to reckon with their actions, so should we as a society call on ourselves to reckon, too. Until we do [so], no different future will be possible.”

Danielle Sered is the executive director of Common Justice. It’s the first program of its kind in the country.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.

DANIELLE SERED: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what we must reckon with.

DANIELLE SERED: So, there’s no path to ending mass incarceration that doesn’t include addressing violence. That’s partly because, as you said, more than half of people in this country are incarcerated for crimes of violence, but it’s also because our national addiction to prison is based in a story about some imagined monstrous other, somebody who is not quite human the way we are, from whom we have to be protected at any cost. It’s that image of somebody, that has been racialized in this country since our very beginnings, that animates us to choose prison over schools, prison over hospitals, prison over basic infrastructure. And until we tackle that central narrative, the possibility of actually ending mass incarceration in our lifetime won’t be within reach.

AMY GOODMAN: What about that distinction between violent and nonviolent crimes?

DANIELLE SERED: So, I think our—honestly, it is the people who have advocated for reform who have made that distinction most central. Many people who experience violence know that their relative who struggles with addiction and their relative who gets in fights at a family barbecue are the same relative. That distinction has been considered politically expedient. And in many ways, for some of the shorter-terms wins, it has been. The problem is, it sets up a barrier to us doing what has to come next. But the other problem is that if you asked crime survivors what types of crimes it was most important that we get right, they wouldn’t say petty theft, and they wouldn’t even say drug possession. They would say crimes of violence. And the problem is that prison not only fails to keep them safe, it actually creates more danger.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to ask, Danielle, how you came to this position. I mean, you start your book with a very striking couple of sentences, which I’ll just read: “As a teenager,” you write, “sleeping on a friend’s couch, I woke up one night to the sound of the bullets stopping. There was a time once when I would have awakened to them starting, but that was long before—before the level of violence in Chicago went through the roof, before the ‘crack epidemic,’ before mass incarceration.” So, could you talk about how you came to see the importance of the question of violent crime, as against nonviolent crime, and incarceration?

DANIELLE SERED: Absolutely. So, when I grew up in Chicago, I came of age at the same time mass incarceration really began to gain its foothold in this country. And we saw people go away, and come home worse for it. I think that’s largely because the thing prison targets most squarely is the thing in me that hurts when you suffer. There are people who are incarcerated who are capable of keeping that intact, but the system is designed, in every single way, to undermine it. So when people came home worse for having been away, we didn’t think about it in some abstract notion of recidivism; we experienced it as harm within our own neighborhoods.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But worse in what sense, would you say?

DANIELLE SERED: I think people had—trauma hurts people. Isolation hurts people. And so, I’m in the business of ending violence. And we know the four core drivers of violence are shame, isolation, exposure to violence, and an inability to meet one’s economic needs. The four core features of prison are shame, isolation, exposure to violence, and an inability to meet one’s economic needs. And so we have baked into our central response to violence in this country precisely the things that we know generate it. It’s reliable in doing so. It’s why study after study will find prison has what’s called a criminogenic effect, which means it not only fails to reduce recidivism, it increases the likelihood that someone will cause both more and greater harm, going forward.

AMY GOODMAN: So what is the alternative?

DANIELLE SERED: At Common Justice, we offer one of them. And, of course, the real answer to displacing mass incarceration will require many. In Common Justice, we bring together people who have committed serious violence, with the consent of the people they’ve harmed, into a dialogue process after extensive preparation. In that process, they acknowledge the harm done to the survivor. They reach agreements about what the responsible person can do to make things as right as possible. If the responsible person fulfills those agreements and continues through our violence intervention curriculum for the year following that dialogue, they don’t go to prison, and the felony charges against them are dismissed. And in the meantime, we work with the survivors of their crimes to help them come through what happened to them and in their lives, generally.

AMY GOODMAN: What is a violence intervention program? I mean, what do they—would they go through?

DANIELLE SERED: So, the core of what they do is mostly consumed by acting on the agreements, the commitments they’ve made to those they hurt. So, that may include restitution, community service, getting work, getting clean, talking to other young people in their neighborhood—any number of things that are deemed of value.

AMY GOODMAN: What, for example, if a rapist?

DANIELLE SERED: We don’t work with sexual violence at Common Justice. Others do. We don’t do that because we think these processes are inapplicable to them; we do it because we understand that sexual violence is distinct from the kind of street violence that we address.

But the violence intervention program with us, the part of their work that actually happens in our office, requires people to reflect on the values, beliefs, experiences and expectations that drove their decision to commit harm in the first place. We don’t believe that people are just sort of trauma machines, who take it in and put it back out. Violence is a choice people make. And given a context in which to actually examine the underlying drivers of that choice, people can choose to behave differently.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, can you explain, Danielle, if there are any precedents or examples of the kind of restorative justice that you’re advocating?

DANIELLE SERED: So, restorative justice practices are thousands of years old. They’re actually far older than the court systems, that we think that they’re the innovative intervention to transform. Restorative practices have their roots in Native communities in this country and in other indigenous communities across the world. And so, since time immemorial, when communities have dealt with people who belong to them, who are members of their community, who commit acts that they know to be wrong, they look for courses of actions that will not only change that behavior, but will keep that community whole. And so, there are programs around the country that apply restorative justice to lower-level crimes than those we address, that apply restorative justice with younger people in the juvenile system, even with serious crimes. Common Justice is the first to apply these practices as a diversion from the criminal justice system, but it is anything but new. Compared to restorative justice, the criminal justice system is like a little toddler on its grandmother’s lap.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read a quote of Michelle Alexander, the scholar, civil rights lawyer and the author of The New Jim Crow. She wrote in her New York Timescolumn about [Danielle] Sered’s book. She said, “Our criminal injustice system lets people off the hook, as they aren’t obligated to answer the victims’ questions, listen to them, honor their pain, express genuine remorse, or do what they can to repair the harm they’ve done. They’re not required to take steps to heal themselves or address their own trauma, so they’re less likely to harm others in the future. The only thing prison requires is that people stay in their cages and somehow endure the isolation and violence of captivity. Prison deprives everyone concerned—victims and those who have caused harm, as well as impacted families and communities—the opportunity to heal, honor their own humanity, and to break cycles of violence that have destroyed far too many lives.” You use examples in your book, [Danielle] Sered. Those are the words of Michelle Alexander, recommending Until We Reckon. Danielle Sered, give us some of the examples.

DANIELLE SERED: I think one of the most powerful ones, early on—as I said earlier, that we only take cases into the project if the victims of the crime consent. It’s important to remember fewer than half of victims call the police in the first place. Another half don’t even make it past grand jury. So that means that the victims who remain in the system following indictment are the ones with the greatest appetite for incarceration. These are the victims we ask whether they want to see the person who hurt them go to prison or come to Common Justice.

Early in our experience, we were talking to a mother whose 14-year-old son had been robbed and beaten. The young man who caused this harm to him was facing at least three years in prison. And I was having a conversation with that mother about whether he should go to prison or Common Justice. And she said to me, “When this young man first hurt my child, first I wanted him to burn to death, and then I wanted him to drown to death. And then I realized, as a mother, I don’t want either of those things. I want him to drown in a river of fire.” And she said, “But the truth is, three years from now, my 9-year-old boy will be 12. And he’ll be going to and from school, to and from the corner store, to and from his aunt’s house alone. And one of those days he’ll walk past this young man. And I have to ask myself, on that day, do I want this young man to have been upstate, or do I want him to have been with y’all?” She said, “Now, if he were before me today and I had my machete”—not a machete, mymachete—”I would chop him to bits, bury him under the house and sleep soundly for the first time since he dared lay his hands on my baby. The truth is, I’d rather him be with y’all.”

I think we have a myth that moving toward some different response to crime requires forgiveness, requires mercy, requires compassion, requires victims who embrace the people who hurt them as though they are their own family, as though they could be brothers. That’s not what it requires. What it requires is pragmatism. That mother made a decision to prioritize the safety of her children and children like him over her emotions. That may or may not be a mother’s obligation. It certainly seems that prioritizing safety over emotion is the job of the criminal justice system.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what’s your own sense of that from your personal experience? You, yourself, are a survivor of violence.

DANIELLE SERED: As a survivor of violence, I know there are very few things that contribute more to our healing than the accountability of those who have hurt us. We want to tell them the impact they had on our lives. We want to ask them questions about what they did and why they did it. We want them to fill in the stories that the trauma itself makes it difficult for us to remember fully. We want them to make it right, in a way that we get to help define. And in some ways, most of all, we want them to become someone who won’t do that ever again—not to us and not to anyone else. The problem is, for every single one of those goals, prison not only doesn’t accomplish it, it precludes it. It separates us. It encourages denial rather than admission. It separates people from opportunities to make repair. And, if anything, it makes it more likely that it will cause more harm rather than less.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you find any kind of restorative justice in you own situation? Could you share it?

DANIELLE SERED: I didn’t. And so—and most of us don’t. And that’s part of—one of the greatest harms of mass incarceration is, in part, that it teaches us that we don’t know what to do, that we, as people, as communities, have no capacity whatsoever to deal with harm. And so we’re often left with a choice between the criminal justice system and nothing. And even those of us who have critiques of the criminal justice system then end up with nothing at all. It’s our aspiration not only that Common Justice and programs like it expand, but also that people who live in community with each other act on what actually is our inherent capacity and expertise as neighbors and family members to make things right when we’ve broken them.

AMY GOODMAN: Laws like the FIRST STEP Act, do they worsen the situation when it comes to dealing with people who have committed violent crimes, in perpetuating stereotypes?

DANIELLE SERED: So, I think every policy reform is going to be incremental, until we are actually passing sort of the abolition of prison and full reparations. Anything short of that is an incremental reform. And so I don’t think critiquing those laws simply because they don’t go far enough is necessarily the right approach. At the same time, when we make laws or when we pass laws that advance reform for nonviolent offenses, and mobilize a narrative that distinguishes those people from the true bad ones, that say, “Don’t lock them up with the ones who will make them worse somehow by sheer proximity to their evil”—when we double down on that narrative, we cause enormous harm. And so, policy is the space of compromise. We’re naive to think it will be anything other than that. Our narrative, our stories, our arguments for why we make those changes don’t have to be.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Do you see any indication at all that the conversation is shifting on violent crime? I mean, nonviolent crime, we see some movement. But on violent crime?

DANIELLE SERED: In the public discourse, less so. In the movement to end mass incarceration, I think people have either done the reflective work or run the numbers, and understand that there is no pathway to victory without it. But the place where that conversation has always been happening is in communities where violence is prevalent. When I said before we gave victims the choice whether or not to choose Common Justice, 90 percent choose Common Justice. Ninety percent. And it’s not mostly because of mercy and compassion. It’s because of pragmatism. People who live in neighborhoods where incarceration is common have been paying for its failure since its inception. And so the conversation about its failure to produce safety, and the appetite to do something different, is long-standing anywhere that people live with what it produces.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, in the last 30 seconds, the larger societal obligation to address the harm?

DANIELLE SERED: So, in interpersonal harm, we believe that people are required to acknowledge what they’ve done, acknowledge its impact, express genuine remorse, make things as right as possible, in a way defined by those harmed, and become someone who won’t do that ever again. As a nation, we have caused extraordinary harm through incarceration, to the people we’ve locked up, to their families, to their community members, and we’ve weaponized the pain of victims, dishonestly, to justify that, while never tending to their needs.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to ask you to hold that thought, and we’re going to continue with Part 2 of our discussion, and we’ll post it online at Danielle Sered is executive director of Common Justice and author of the new book, Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair.

I’ll be speaking in Denver, Colorado, on March 15th, Friday night at 7:00 at East High School. Check our website at

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