ReadingsReckoning With Violence By March 3, 2019When Chicago’s police chief, Eddie Johnson, looked out at the sea of journalists to share the


Reckoning With Violence
By March 3, 2019

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

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.

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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

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

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.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

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.

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