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The Appeal Podcast: Imagining A Post-Incarceration World

With Danielle Sered of Common Justice

Face in shadow

To those tasked with radically reimagining the U.S. legal system and moving it away from the current carceral, hyper-punitive model, the logical question arises: What do you replace it with? It’s a fair question and one activists and thinkers have been struggling with for decades. One such person, our guest Danielle Sered of Common Justice, has been implementing alternative justice systems in New York City for years. Today she joins us to talk about what another world looks like–and how justice and safety are possible without throwing people in cages.

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Adam Johnson: Hi welcome to The Appeal. I’m your host Adam Johnson. This is a podcast on criminal justice reform, abolition and everything in between. Remember, you can always follow us at The Appeal’s main Facebook and Twitter page and as always you can rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcast. 

To those tasked with radically reimagining the US legal system and moving it away from our current carceral hyper-punitive model, the logical question arises: What do you replace it with? It’s a fair question and one activists and thinkers have been struggling with for decades. One such person, our guest Danielle Sered of Common Justice, has been implementing alternative justice systems in New York City for years. Today she joins us to talk about what another world looks like and how justice and safety are possible without throwing people in cages.

[Begin Clip]

Danielle Sered: It’s important to remember fewer than half of victims call the police in the first place. So that means any pretense our criminal justice system has of being victim centered is nonsense if more than half of people who are rendered unconscious, who are hospitalized, who are scarred for the rest of their lives physically and emotionally prefer nothing to everything that system has on offer.

[End Clip]

Adam: Danielle, thank you so much for joining us on The Appeal. 

Danielle Sered: Thank you for having me. 

Adam: Your organization, Common Justice, was recommended to me by someone I know in the space and I’ve been researching it for a while and I think it’s utterly fascinating. Can you tell us about your organization? You say that in Brooklyn and the Bronx, you quote “operate the first alternative to incarceration and victim services program in the United States that focuses on violent felonies in the adult courts.” Before we sort of get into the nitty gritty here, can you sort of just give us kind of a general overview of what your organization does?

Danielle Sered: Sure. So Common Justice develops and advances solutions to violence that meet the needs of those who are harmed, that advance racial equity and that do not rely on incarceration. So the alternative to incarceration program you describe is that the center of our work, it’s a project in which we divert cases in Brooklyn and the Bronx, such as gunpoint robberies, assaults, stabbings, serious violence into a restorative justice process where the people responsible for harm after extensive preparation, sit with those they’ve hurt, reach agreements about how to make things as right as possible and then fulfill their agreements. If they do that, the people responsible for those crimes don’t go to prison. And throughout that period we work with the people harmed to help them come through what happened to them and in their lives generally.

Adam: Okay. So this is obviously a very radical idea for most people. I know it’s becoming less radical, but I think it’s fair to say for most people, this sounds very provocative. I want to talk for a minute, when you say “victim services,” the concept of victims’ rights is sort of leveraged by the right-wing and even some carceral liberals and has been for some time, this idea of like fighting for victims, which it sounds great, right? Of course you can fight for victims, you know, you fight for the little guy. That’s the ethos of a million Law and Order episodes. Can you explain how your organization sort of seeks to kind of push back against this ethos and what a real kind of victim centered justice system looks like and what our notions of victims are in terms of the asymmetry of victims are only on the street but victims are never in cages controlled by the state? Can we sort of unpack that and talk about this idea of “victim” and fighting for victims?

Danielle Sered: Sure. So I think there are two main mistakes we make in our representation understanding of victims in the broad public discourse. The first is about who victims are. So you give the example of Law and Order, and I have not admittedly watched all the various spinoff shows, but in the old school Law and Order in a thousand episodes, you will find only one where the victim is a young man of color. It’s a show that is about homicides in New York City, a city where 98 percent of survivors of homicide are people of color, 95 percent are young men of color. And our story continually depicts primarily white women as the people who are survivors of harm. It couldn’t be less statistically true. And I say that as a white woman and a survivor myself. But even though I am a white woman and a survivor, a young man of color is ten and a half times more likely than I am to be robbed or assaulted and is virtually nowhere, not only in our discourse about victim services, but in our practice. The other thing we get wrong in our representation about victims is not just who they are, but what victims want. And this holds true across demographics, not just for the young men I described. So at Common Justice, we only take people into the program if the victims of their crime agree. It’s important to remember, fewer than half of victims call the police in the first place. So that means any pretense our criminal justice system has of being victim centered is nonsense if more than half of people who are rendered unconscious, who are hospitalized, who are scarred for the rest of their lives physically and emotionally prefer nothing to everything that system has on offer. Only half full call, another half will drop out of the process by grand jury at the sort of first threshold in the prosecutorial process, they will decide they would rather opt out then go through what that system does in their names and on their behalf and with their participation. It’s that remaining 25 percent we at Common Justice reach out to. So arguably the “jailing-est” subset of victims you’ll find, and we talked to the subset of those who have had guns to their heads, who have had the lacerations to their livers, who’ve had scars to their faces and we say to them, do you want the person who hurt you in prison or do you want them in Common Justice? And 90 percent choose Common Justice. 

Adam: Right.

Danielle Sered: 90 percent. It’s a wild number. And when I first saw it, I sort of thought that people were better than I knew, that we were more merciful, that we have more grace for one another, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on and what’s going on is something I should have known as a survivor myself. So the best way I’ve been able to describe it is that as survivors, we’ll feel pain so deep, we would want to wring out our bones to get it out of the marrow stored there and we will feel fear so all consuming that in the safety of our homes, in the arms of the people we trust most, we will be unable to sleep and we will wake from that sleep with nightmares and we will feel rage that makes us unrecognizable even to ourselves. But at the end of the day there is one thing that outranks that and that is that we are pragmatic. At the end of the day there are two things survivors can’t stand. We can’t stand the idea of going through it again and we can’t stand the idea of someone else going through what we went through. So when we’re faced with a choice, we will always choose the thing that we think will prevent those two outcomes. The hardest people in the world to persuade that incarceration will deliver on the promise of safety are anybody who lives in neighborhoods where incarceration is common. It’s not about theoretical discussions about punishment and rehabilitation and retribution. And it’s not about some statistically significant study about recidivism rates. Survivors pay for prisons failure with their own pain, and they have for far too long. And so when you give survivors the choice, even those who don’t feel mercy, even those who still feel rage, even those who are still afraid will choose an option other than prison when that option is on the table simply because they want to be safe.

Adam: Yeah. Cause I feel like that’s the issue that so many people have come up against, which is that for people who don’t want to be punitive or don’t want to throw people in the sort of quasi sort of torture system, that there’s just not an alternative. It’s either that or nothing or that, or even in many cases can still be menaced by say like a domestic abuser, etcetera, etcetera and that there’s not something they can seek. You see this a lot with police too, right? I mean there’s a, there’s an ethos of just sort of mindlessly calling the police. It’s a common joke on Twitter, people say that white people treat 9-1-1 like customer service where like our instinct is to just call the police. Your phone is stolen: call the police. There’s a loud noise: call the police. What is the sort of cultural aspect of this where you sort of need to introduce people to the idea that that just kind of mindlessly relying on the carceral system, especially, it is obviously very racialized, white people’s relationship with the police is very different. Culturally how do you sort of get people out of that mindset even among, again, sort of do-good-y liberals, this is the way they think about the world, culturally, how do you shift the conversation and to what extent is that difficult to kind of change people’s mindset?

Danielle Sered: So I think there’s a couple of different ways to think about this. I think there is the part when we talk about white people using 9-1-1 like customer service, like then we’re talking about white people relying on like the force of the state to resolve matters that could be handled in just some regular neighborly communication, right? 

Adam: Right.

Danielle Sered: Like where people could just speak to each other and that the idea of invoking some external authority with the power to kill is excessive, dangerous, harmful and deeply rooted in white supremacy. That’s one thing. When we’re talking about survivors of violence, it’s not as simple as to say like don’t call the police. The thing for us, like the biggest challenge is like what do we do for people where the thing that has been done to them requires a response? Not where they’re overreacting by seeking help and protection, but where they are deserving of help and protection for what happened. And it means that in my view, when we think about shrinking the criminal justice system, there is a whole portion of things that the criminal justice system does that it just should stop doing entirely. It should just leave people alone. And then there are a portion of things where we who want to see mass incarceration end, there’s some responsibility, the collective to develop solutions to those problems and those harms that do not rely on police and prisons. And so at Common Justice, we think less about shrinking mass incarceration and more about displacing it. Like how do we build the kinds of things that render incarceration unnecessary. And I think a lot about what people experience as a tension between a principled hatred of mass incarceration and a principled hatred of violence and kind of what to do when those things come into tension. Those things are only in tension in the absence of options because the truth is that prison, you know, I think we make a mistake where we say, you know, our opponents say prison works and we say prison doesn’t work. But that’s not actually quite what it is. It’s not just the prison doesn’t work. It’s that prison generates violence. So we know the core drivers of violence broadly are structural factors are inequity are poverty are poor health care are all those things. But on an individual level, the reason one person similarly situated might commit harm when another wouldn’t, the core drivers of violence or shame, isolation, exposure to violence and an inability to meet one’s economic needs. The core features of prison are shame, isolation, exposure to violence and an inability to meet one’s economic needs. And so we’ve built into our core response to violence exactly the thing that generates them. That means you don’t have to be someone who hates prison to fight for the end of mass incarceration. You have to be someone who hates violence and if you are, you will fight for the end of mass incarceration not necessarily because you oppose putting human beings in cages, but because you ultimately want to be safe.

Adam: Yeah. It seems like in many ways there’s, I do media criticism for The Appeal as well, I write a column, and one thing I come across constantly is like the violence of prison and even statistically speaking, the ways in which prisons create more criminality. There are several studies that show that people who go to prison, especially pretrial detention, are more likely to commit crime, namely cause they drop out of school, they lose their job and of course there’s influence in prison itself. That none of these sort of arguments really kind of break through people’s head because the point is that punishment is sort of intrinsically good, that it’s supposed to be this torturous place because that’ll somehow in the aggregate act as a deterrent. And one of the things I want to sort of do is can we kind of drill down here and talk about an example, you don’t have to name names, but can you sort of give an example to kind of illustrate what you’re talking about in terms of how this provides an alternative that’s both restorative and also not, like you said, perpetuating a cycle of violence?

Danielle Sered: The thing I’d offer, I’m happy to offer an example, but the thing I’d offer is it’s really important that we distinguish between punishment and accountability. So I am not a believer in punishment cause I think punishment is at best unproductive and at worst counterproductive. That it doesn’t generate healing for those who’ve been hurt and it doesn’t generate positive change in those who caused harm. And so I’m not into it as somebody who’s into healing and change. I am deeply into accountability. And for us that means acknowledging what you’ve done, acknowledging its impact, expressing genuine remorse, making things as right as possible, ideally in a way defined by those harmed and doing the hard labor of becoming someone who will never cause harm again. Accountability is almost entirely absent in our prison systems, which are designed not just to not promote them, but in a way that’s antithetical to accountability in part because accountability requires your whole dignified human self and prison is built to diminish your whole dignified human self. And so prison depletes exactly the things you need from your own human dignity to a bank account from which you could pay restitution. Like the things that are needed for repair are very hard to access in the context of incarceration. And we see that differently when we do something else. And so in the processes where people have been hurt, in the circles, participants reach agreements about how the people responsible for harm can make things right. And in one case, and this is not a common one, but it gives you a sense of what happens when actual, the human beings whose lives are at stake in the outcome actually get to shape the response. We had a young man who was robbed and really badly beaten on his way home from work. He worked in a kitchen in Manhattan for cash. He was paid in cash. He came home to Brooklyn, he was robbed on his way home and the robbery and beating affected him the way trauma affects so many of us. So he experienced hyper vigilance. Like he was nervous every time someone came up behind him, even quote unquote “a little old lady” his mind would race and his heart would race and his stomach would turn. And he retreated from his life and from his partnership and from his education and from all sorts of things because the difficulty of being in the world was so profound for him. And in the process with the person who hurt him we have a talking stick, you talk when you have, you don’t when you don’t and it went to the person after a lengthy part of the conversation where we had talked about what happened and its impact and the young man who committed this crime said, you know, every man older than me and my family has served at least ten years in prison. My brother served eleven years. Each of those years he won the like prison boxing league championship. And he said, my brother’s the one who taught me how to fight. And that night on the street I showed you the wrong end of it but he’s also the one who taught me how to defend myself and if you want, I’ll teach you that too. And the stick went around to the survivor and he said, I would love that. And because none of us had the stick, we couldn’t question it. And so we go to a martial arts studio because we wanted somebody capable of these things to oversee the process and first, the young man who committed the robbery is standing as though he’s being held right? As though he’s being restrained in the same way he restrained the survivor that night and he’s modeling how you get out of that kind of grip and then they switch positions and this survivor is being held not just in the same position but by the same man who is the source of all this trauma he experienced only this time this man is teaching him over and over. He’s like, ‘okay, move your hand to the right. Okay. That’s the spot.’ Until he learns how to release himself from that grip. He does it over and over and over again until eventually that young man is using his whole strength and the survivors continually breaking free. The next day that survivor calls me and he said, ‘Danielle, I’m calling to tell you nothing happened.’ And that didn’t seem like a reason for a call. So I said, could you say more? And he said, ‘I walked by a six foot four man and nothing happened.’ Right? Like his heart didn’t race, his mind didn’t race, his stomach didn’t turn, and he had half an hour before he had to be at work and he went to Times Square so he could walk by as many people as possible and you hear him on the phone like, ‘hold on, I see a tall one. Like, nothing.’ Like, tell me he doesn’t deserve that. And I challenge us if we know, because in the same way the person who committed that crime has not committed a new crime in the nearly decade since. Like if we know how to keep each other safe, how dare we deny that kind of access of healing to survivors who otherwise have no pathway to it.

Adam: Yeah. So let’s talk about the politics of this. I know there’s a lot of traction. There’s even increased money going into some of this stuff now. People realize that if you’re really serious about ending mass incarceration or lessening the prison population, it’s not just going to be about the sort of proverbial two joints in prison. Although of course that does happen. You really need to think radically different about how we view these things. What is the sort of political dynamic right now, the majority of people who probably listen to this, they think, you know, well not our show because we’re mostly people, obviously there’s a sample bias, but people listening say, ‘okay, well that’s kind of squishy liberal bullshit. We need to throw people in cages and deter crime.’ Politically speaking, what are the conversations that you know that activists have had or that you’ve had in terms of actually implementing some of these strategies on the local level? I know you work in New York, but what’s the political landscape like and to what extent have you seen lawmakers willing to kind of go out on a limb and think critically and think differently about this subject and how much space has been open to really kind of try to change the way we look at this?

Danielle Sered: I mean when it comes to diversion work, which is different than sentencing reform. So sentencing reform really struggles when we get to crimes of violence. We see some traction on the backend in terms of collateral consequences, even parole, but very little on the front end. When it comes to diversion though the elected official who matters most far and away is the prosecutor and I think the growing movement, you know, we saw Chesa Boudin win in San Francisco this week and the growing movement to elect progressive prosecutors has its eye on one of the single most important levers of power in the criminal justice system. Like prosecutors could end mass incarceration tomorrow without changing a single law, like the degree of discretion allowed to them is absolutely vast. And when they choose to exercise that discretion differently, all things become possible. To my mind, the thing that will predict most which of these new progressive prosecutors actually engage in really substantial change, as opposed to just, like kind of around little, as opposed to just low level adjustments and minor kind of refinements of an existing practice. What will predict which prosecutors actually engage in transformative change is who elects those prosecutors? So not are the prosecutors good people, not do they have a progressive agenda, not are they honest, upright citizens, but rather who do they answer to? And so prosecutors, for example, our prosecutor in Brooklyn, his base is primarily in central Brooklyn, which are the neighborhoods most impacted by his office. When prosecutors actually answer to communities of color with high levels of violence, they make fundamentally different choices than if they’re answering elsewhere. It means you start to see something that approaches some semblance of actually representative democracy. And so I think it’s really important when we look at all these progressive prosecutor campaigns and that the question isn’t how progressive is this person, how good is this person? How much do we like them? But rather like what is the organizing strategy to win? Because if the strategy is one of converting existing voters to a slightly more progressive platform, then that will be a slight shift. If the strategy is animating voters whose lives are at stake in the work of that office to tip an election that otherwise would go a different way, we start to see like the shifts in power that can sustain much more substantial change.

Adam: Right. Yeah. It’s sort of you see this with Larry Krasner too, which is like what are the constituencies putting pressure on the office as well because uh, yeah, sort of relying on the kind of moral properties of one person is not really ever uh, a wise political strategy.

Danielle Sered: No, I would rather have a self-interested sleazebag who answers to communities of color than a really good person who answers as to white communities where crime is uncommon.

Adam: Right. Cause I had, you know, we had Chesa on the show before his election and we asked him, cause I think that’s the sort of question, like what do you mean when you say, progressive prosecutor? Like what does it mean to end mass incarceration? Like give me an arbitrary number. And he really did kind of try to reshift the focus into similar terms you’re using, where it’s like at the very least we can start from a place where our first thing we do is not reach for the book to throw at people. And I feel like that’s a radical change from even like five years ago. I don’t want to be too sentimental, but just even that we’re having the conversation is itself-

Danielle Sered: It’s extraordinary. I mean, when Ken Thompson ran in New York, in Brooklyn, it was before there was kind of this category of progressive prosecutors and just before the wave, but he ran on a racial justice platform and it means voters who had never paid attention to the DA race ever before became animated to participate and elect somebody who promised that racial justice would be at the center of his leadership. And I think the more we see that kind of organizing, not just that kind of candidate, the more we will have a base of people positioned to hold prosecutors accountable to the progressive promises that they make.

Adam: Yeah. We’ve come across a lot of people,of course you don’t even know you can vote for the district attorney and that’s, that’s even, the political education there is quite expansive. Um, before you go, is there anything you want to sort of promote or anything upcoming, like if someone’s listening to this where can they check out your work and what can they expect in the near future?

Danielle Sered: There are a couple of things. I recently published a book called Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair and people interested in more detail about the work, both the philosophy underlining it as well as what it looks like in practice can read that book and then people should also check out an extraordinary series of videos that our Director of Communications Aseante Renee has produced called the Ever After. Those are available at and there are a series of conversations with people who have committed and or survived violence, about what the aftermath of that for them looked like and what they wish it could have looked like instead.

Adam: Definitely check those things out. I really appreciate you coming on. This was a very enlightening conversation. Thank you so much.

Danielle Sered: Thank you.

Adam: Thank you to our guest Danielle Sered. This has been The Appeal podcast. Remember, you can always follow us at The Appeal magazine’s main Facebook and Twitter page, and as always, you can rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcast. The show is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. The production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Executive producer Cassi Feldman. I’m your host Adam Johnson. Thank you so much. We’ll see you next week.