Monday, March 04, 2019
"By Michelle Alexander, www.nytimes.comView OriginalMarch 3rd, 2019
We must face violent crime honestly and courageously if we are ever to end mass incarceration and provide survivors what they truly want and need to heal.
When Chicago’s police chief, Eddie Johnson, looked out at the sea of journalists to share the breaking news that Jussie Smollett, a well-known and beloved actor, had allegedly staged a violent racist and homophobic attack against himself, he said with great emotion: “Guys, I look out into the crowd, I just wish that the families of gun violence in this city got this much attention.”
Chicago is besieged by horrific levels of violence, including thousands of shootings and hundreds of homicides each year. More than 500 people were killed in 2018, down from 664 in 2017. This ongoing tragedy cannot be blamed on any lack of aggressiveness on the part of law enforcement. Indeed, if wars on crime and drugs, militarized policing, “get tough” sentencing policies, torture of suspects, and perpetual monitoring and surveillance of the poorest, most crime-ridden communities actually worked to keep people safe, Chicago would be one of the safest cities in the world.
Despite the abysmal failure of “get tough” strategies to break cycles of violence in cities like Chicago, reformers of our criminal justice system in recent years have largely avoided the subject of violence, instead focusing their energy and resources on overhauling our nation’s drug laws and reducing penalties for nonviolent offenses.
It’s not difficult to understand why. After all, violent crime was used by politicians for decades to rationalize “get tough” rhetoric, declarations of war, harsh mandatory minimum sentencing, and a prison-building boom unlike anything the world has ever seen. The tide has turned somewhat, but reformers are proceeding cautiously, reaching first for the low-hanging fruit.
Drug law reform has never been an easier sell — especially now that opioid addiction is perceived as ravaging primarily white communities, generating far more compassion than black communities ever experienced during the crack epidemic in the late 1980s. The opportunity to curb the drug war is critically important for many communities of color, especially in places like Chicago where it has caused catastrophic harm. Nationally, the drug war helped to birth our system of mass incarceration, which now governs not only the 2.2 million people who are locked in prisons and jails in this country, but also the 4.5 million people that are under correctional control outside prison walls — on probation or parole. More than 70 million people now have criminal records that authorize legal discrimination against them, relegating them to a permanent second-class status. The overwhelming majority ensnared by this system have been convicted of nonviolent crimes and drug offenses.
And yet, as Danielle Sered points out in her profoundly necessary book, “Until We Reckon,” if we fail to face violence in our communities honestly, courageously and with profound compassion for the survivors — many of whom are also perpetrators of harm — our nation will never break its addiction to caging human beings.
Fifty-four percent of the people currently held in state prisons have been convicted of a crime classified as violent. We will never slash our prison population by 50 percent — the goal of a number of current campaigns — much less get back to levels of incarceration that we had before the race to incarcerate began in the early 1980s, without addressing the one issue most reformers avoid: violence.
Reckoning with violence in a meaningful way does not mean “getting tough” in the way that phrase has been used for decades; nor does it mean being “smart on crime” to the extent that phrase has become shorthand for being “tough” on violent crime but “soft” on nonviolent crime — a formulation that continues to be embraced by some so-called “progressive prosecutors” today.
As Ms. Sered explains in her book, drawing on her experience working with hundreds of survivors and perpetrators of violence in Brooklyn and the Bronx, imprisonment isn’t just an inadequate tool; it’s often enormously counterproductive — leaving survivors and their communities worse off.
Survivors themselves know this. That’s why fully 90 percent of survivors in New York City, when given the chance to choose whether they want the person who harmed them incarcerated or in a restorative justice process — one that offers support to survivors while empowering them to help decide how perpetrators of violence can repair the damage they’ve done — choose the latter and opt to use the services of Ms. Sered’s nonprofit organization, Common Justice.
Ms. Sered launched Common Justice in an effort to give survivors of violence — like herself — a meaningful pathway to accountability without perpetuating the harms endemic to mass incarceration. As a restorative justice program, it offers a survivor-centered accountability process that “gives those directly impacted by acts of violence the opportunity to shape what repair will look like, and, in the case of the responsible party, to carry out that repair instead of going to prison.” The people who choose to participate are victims of serious violent felonies — people who have been shot, stabbed or robbed — and who decide that they would prefer to get answers from the person who harmed them, be heard in a restorative justice circle, help to devise an accountability plan, and receive comprehensive victim services, rather than send the person who harmed them to prison.
Ninety percent is a stunning figure considering everything we’ve been led to believe that survivors actually want. For years, we’ve been told that victims of violence want nothing more than for the people who hurt them to be locked up and treated harshly. It is true that some survivors do want revenge or retribution, especially in the immediate aftermath of the crime. Ms. Sered is emphatic that rage is not pathological and a desire for revenge is not blameworthy; both are normal and can be important to the healing process, much as denial and anger are normal stages of grief.
But she also stresses that the number of people who are interested only in revenge or punishment is greatly exaggerated. After all, survivors are almost never offered real choices. Usually when we ask victims “Do you want incarceration?” what we’re really asking is “Do you want something or nothing?” And when any of us are hurt, and when our families and communities are hurting, we want something rather than nothing. In many oppressed communities, drug treatment, good schools, economic investment, job training, trauma and grief support are not available options. Restorative justice is not an option. The only thing on offer is prisons, prosecutors and police.
But what happens, Ms. Sered wondered, if instead of asking, “Do you want something or nothing?” we started asking “Do you want this intervention or that prison?” It turns out, when given a real choice, very few survivors choose prison as their preferred response.
This is not because survivors, as a group, are especially merciful. To the contrary, they’re pragmatic. They know the criminal justice system will almost certainly fail to deliver what they want and need most to overcome their pain and trauma. More than 95 percent of cases end in plea bargains negotiated by lawyers behind the scenes. Given the system’s design, survivors know the system cannot be trusted to validate their suffering, give them answers or even a meaningful opportunity to be heard. Nor can it be trusted to keep them or others safe.
In fact, many victims find that incarceration actually makes them feel less safe. They worry that others will be angry with them for reporting the crime and retaliate, or fear what will happen when the person eventually returns home. Many believe, for good reason, that incarceration will likely make the person worse, not better — a frightening prospect when they’re likely to encounter the person again when they’re back in the neighborhood.
As one woman whose 14-year-old son had been badly beaten and robbed explained to Ms. Sered, “When I first found out about this, I wanted the young man to drown to death. And then I wanted him to burn to death. And then I realized as a mother that I don’t want either of those things. I want him to drown in a river of fire.” But when she reflected on the fact that the young man who harmed her son would eventually return home from prison and cross paths with her children again, she said, “I have to ask myself: When that day comes, do I want that young man to have been upstate or do I want him to have been with y’all?”
People gathered in Garfield Park and other Chicago neighborhoods in May 2016, as a plea against violence.
Photo by: Todd Heisler/The New York Times
The restorative circle, a meeting during which responsible parties sit with those they have harmed (or surrogates who take their place), a trained facilitator, and people who support both parties, is central to the process. It offers those affected by a crime with the power and opportunity to ask questions, as well as describe their needs and the ways they've been harmed. Ultimately, the parties strive to reach agreement about what the responsible party can do to make things as right as possible. The circle can be transformative for both survivors and those who’ve caused harm. In Ms. Sered’s experience, survivors not only want answers to factual questions, they want acknowledgment of their suffering and the moral wrongs. They want to be able to say: “How dare you? My brother was killed the year before you stabbed me. Can you imagine how it felt to my mother to get the call from the hospital that I was unconscious in the E.R. and had been stabbed?” Sered explains.
Witnessing the pain and anguish of survivors, and taking full responsibility for what they’ve done by committing to specific actions to repair themselves and others, has a far greater impact on those who’ve committed harm than we might imagine. One young man, who had been a gang member since he was 8 years old, could not leave the building after participating in a restorative circle with Common Justice because he was shaking so badly after admitting the harm he had done. He asked staff members, “Can I stay in your office for a few minutes before I leave?” When asked to explain, he said, “You know, for all I’ve done and all that’s been done to me, I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a real apology before. Do you think I did all right? Pardon my language, that is the scariest shit I ever did.”
A growing body of research strongly supports the anecdotal evidence that restorative justice programs increase the odds of safety, reduce recidivism and alleviate trauma. “Until We Reckon” cites studies showing that survivors report 80 to 90 percent rates of satisfaction with restorative processes, as compared to 30 percent for traditional court systems.
Common Justice's success rate is high: Only 7 percent of responsible parties have been terminated from the program for a new crime. And it’s not alone in successfully applying restorative justice principles. Numerous organizations — such as Community Justice for Youth Institute and Project NIA in Chicago; the Insight Prison Project in San Quentin; the Community Conferencing Center in Baltimore; and Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth — are doing so in communities, schools, and criminal justice settings from coast-to-coast.
In 2016, the Alliance for Safety and Justice conducted the first national poll of crime survivors and the results are consistent with the emerging trend toward restorative justice. The majority said they “believe that time in prison makes people more likely to commit another crime rather than less likely.” Sixty-nine percent preferred holding people accountable through options beyond prison, such as mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, rehabilitation, community supervision and public service. Survivors’ support for alternatives to incarceration was even higher than among the general public.
Survivors are right to question incarceration as a strategy for violence reduction. Violence is driven by shame, exposure to violence, isolation and an inability to meet one’s economic needs — all of which are core features of imprisonment. Perhaps most importantly, according to Ms. Sered, “Nearly everyone who has committed violence first survived it,” and studies indicate that experiencing violence is the greater predictor of committing it. Caging and isolating a person who’s already been damaged by violence is hardly a recipe for positive transformation.
That said, Ms. Sered makes clear that she doesn’t believe that having been a victim of crime excuses acts of violence in any way: “When we hurt someone, we incur an obligation. Period.” In fact, it seems her greatest complaint about our system of mass incarceration is that it fails to take accountability seriously. 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.
Ms. Sered acknowledges that we, as a society, are not yet prepared to apply restorative and transformative justice principles to all crimes of violence. Some people do need to be separated in order to keep others safe. But if we invest our resources in the healing, restoration and rebuilding of relationships and communities — and stop pretending that caging people on a massive scale makes our communities safer — we just might discover that we are capable of reckoning with one another."
Opinion | Reckoning With Violence - The New York Times