What does it mean to get tough on violence? What would a justice system look like if it truly aimed to keep people safe? The traditional notion of toughness involves long sentences, harsh prison conditions, and minimal rehabilitation. That method might succeed in inflicting suffering, but it also fails to ask much of the people it punishes, apart from survival. It does not challenge people to examine their own lives and choices, face up to harms they have inflicted, apologize, or commit to change. In fact, most jurisdictions prohibit communication between people who have committed crimes and the people they have harmed, even, sometimes, when the victim wants to have a dialogue. As Danielle Sered notes in her recent book “Until We Reckon,” if we fail to face violence in our communities honestly, courageously and with compassion for the survivors—many of whom are also perpetrators of harm—we will never break our addiction to incarceration. Nor will we be safe from violent crime.
“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,” Michelle Alexander wrote in the New York Times. “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 program handles serious violent felonies—shootings, stabbings, robberies—where the victim “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.” Facilitators lead restorative circles with people who committed harm and those they have harmed. Survivors can ask questions and describe their feelings, and say what they need. Together, the parties seek an agreement about what the responsible party can do to make things as right as possible. [Michelle Alexander / New York Times]
Ordinarily, when survivors are asked if they want incarceration, the question is really “Do you want something or nothing?” But Sered has found that when given the option of restorative justice, 90 percent of violent crime survivors forego the legal system and choose Common Justice. Survivors, Sered says, are 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,” writes Alexander. “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.” [Michelle Alexander / New York Times]
One young participant in Sered’s program, who had been a gang member since he was 8 years old, shook badly after admitting the harm he had done. “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,” he said. “Do you think I did all right? Pardon my language, that is the scariest s*** I ever did.” Research strongly supports the anecdotal evidence that restorative justice programs increase the odds of safety, reduce recidivism and alleviate trauma. “Survivors report 80 to 90 percent rates of satisfaction with restorative processes, as compared to 30 percent for traditional court systems,” Alexander writes. Only 7 percent of responsible parties who participate in Common Justice have been terminated from the program for a new crime. [Michelle Alexander / New York Times]
In Parallel Justice, Susan Herman creates a “new framework for responding to crime—two separate, parallel paths to justice–one for victims and one for offenders.” Our society responds to crime “by trying to apprehend, prosecute, sanction and eventually reintegrate” the people responsible. But the Parallel Justice framework sets out a separate set of responses for victims, seeking to restore their safety, help them recover, and regain a sense of control over their lives. Herman challenges “police, prosecutors, courts, and corrections to respond more effectively.” [Susan Herman / Parallel Justice]
Another violence prevention model, initially called CeaseFire and now called Cure Violence, takes a public health view of gun violence. Gary Slutkin, an infectious disease physician with experience fighting HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis in Africa, moved to Chicago in the late 1990s and began to analyze the challenge of gun violence using a public health lens. He noted that, like a blood-borne pathogen, violence is predictable, and it spreads person-to-person. Slutkin started a program that collaborates with trusted community members, many of whom are former gang members, to act as mediators at the “epicenter of violent behavior.” These “interrupters” work to “move out of judgment [and] into understanding,” much like a public health official or doctor in an emergency room. Cure Violence has now been implemented in more than 20 cities across the country. One evaluation of eight such communities, conducted in 2007 by Northwestern University, found reductions in shootings and killings between 41 and 73 percent, and a complete elimination of retaliation killings in five of the eight neighborhoods. [Sophia Kecskes / Yale Global Health Review]
Roca, another promising model, describes itself as “an evidence-based and data-driven intervention model” that is designed to serve high-risk young people “who are not yet ready, willing, or able to change.” Instead of a two-day bootcamp, Roca takes a long view, offering two years of intensive services followed by two years of follow-up. The program started in Massachusetts and recently expanded to Baltimore. “We’re just at the beginning of a long road,” said Molly Baldwin, Roca’s founder. “As we get to know them, we find young people who are tired and want something else.” Roca’s data show that it is usually 15 to 18 months before the participants show up consistently, and when they do, Roca helps them stay out of jail and in jobs. [Yvonne Wenger and Lillian Reed / Baltimore Sun]
In Miami-Dade county, Judge Steven Leifman has pioneered a way for the criminal system to treat people with mental illness compassionately, sensibly, and effectively. A former public defender, Leifman created the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Criminal Mental Health Project in 2000, a program that steers people with mental illnesses away from incarceration. Now, if people with mental illnesses are arrested for a low-level offense in Miami-Dade County and agree to the program, they are provided with case management, access to housing, and diversion to a mental health program to receive treatment and continuing care. Last year, Leifman spoke to the Daily Appeal about how he created the system and how it works. Between 2003 and 2017, police in the county handled 83,427 mental health calls, but only made 149 arrests. “Now, if you’re a patrol cop and you get hit or pushed by a person with mental illness, you don’t make the arrest,” Leifman said. “They understand that the person is just sick.” As for the people who get arrested, Leifman does not worry that his program isn’t harsh enough. “If we set them up to fail, that’s not holding them accountable,” he said. “And it’s not like we’re patting them on the back and releasing them. Our program is much more rigorous than if they go to jail.” And in the end, he adds, it is less about accountability than making sure they don’t end up back in jail. [Sarah Lustbader / Daily Appeal]