To End Mass Incarceration, We Must Rethink How We Respond to Violence

Using restorative justice techniques as an alternative to prison has a surprising group of supporters: victims of violence

Sophie Bandarkar October 10, 2017

Willacy County Correctional Center in Raymondville, Texas is one of thirteen privately run prisons for non-US citizens

This arti­cle was pro­duced in part­ner­ship with For­eign Pol­i­cy in Focus.

As a society, we fail to humanize perpetrators of violent crime. We fail to separate the person from the act.

Don­ald Trump wants you to believe that the coun­try is con­sumed by vio­lent crime. He claimed ear­li­er this year, The mur­der rate in our coun­try is the high­est it’s been in 47 years, right?” This sum­mer, Attor­ney Gen­er­al Jeff Ses­sions echoed the claim that the Unit­ed States is in the mid­dle of a crime wave, in order to jus­ti­fy harsh polic­ing and incar­cer­a­tion practices.

Both claims are deeply mis­lead­ing: The vio­lent crime rate peaked in 1991. Despite a few small blips year to year, its over­all tra­jec­to­ry has been unmis­tak­ably down­ward ever since.

How­ev­er, vio­lent crime remains a major dri­ver of the U.S. mass incar­cer­a­tion cri­sis. The Unit­ed States incar­cer­ates a total of 2.3 mil­lion peo­ple, with more than 4.5 mil­lion more on pro­ba­tion or parole. At the state lev­el — which hosts more than half of the nation­al prison pop­u­la­tion—most are serv­ing time for vio­lent offenses.

Vio­lent crime is defined as offens­es that involve force or threat of force. The def­i­n­i­tions dif­fer state by state, and the term itself has a lot of com­plex­i­ties, but at a fed­er­al lev­el this cat­e­go­ry is gen­er­al­ly com­posed of four kinds of charges: mur­der and non-neg­li­gent manslaugh­ter, forcible rape, rob­bery and aggra­vat­ed assault.

Our incar­cer­a­tion rate per capi­ta is far high­er than any oth­er coun­try in the world, and it’s not doing much to curb vio­lent crime charges. More than 70 per­cent of incar­cer­at­ed adults held on vio­lent con­vic­tions are lat­er arrest­ed again.

How­ev­er, it’s going to take more than call­ing out the admin­is­tra­tion on its mis­guid­ed rhetoric to fix our bro­ken carcer­al sys­tem. It’s going to take rad­i­cal­ly shift­ing the way we think about vio­lence and pub­lic safety.

Human­iz­ing Perpetrators

As a soci­ety, we fail to human­ize per­pe­tra­tors of vio­lent crime. We fail to sep­a­rate the per­son from the act. We fail to look at acts of vio­lence as prod­ucts of oth­er struc­tur­al and gen­er­a­tional vio­lence — like racism, pover­ty, men­tal ill­ness and addiction.

For instance, black peo­ple make up 13 per­cent of the total U.S. pop­u­la­tion but 40 per­cent of the prison pop­u­la­tion, and peo­ple sen­tenced to prison have pre-incar­cer­a­tion incomes 41 per­cent low­er than their peers on the out­side. At least half of state pris­on­ers with a past or cur­rent vio­lent con­vic­tion have a men­tal ill­ness, and near­ly two thirds of peo­ple incar­cer­at­ed in pris­ons and jails suf­fer sub­stance abuse issues.

Yet sen­tenc­ing guide­lines often empha­size tak­ing revenge on the already mar­gin­al­ized, instead of giv­ing them a chance to take account­abil­i­ty for their actions — so they nev­er get a true chance at rehabilitation.

As a result, we con­tin­ue to rein­force dis­par­i­ties in incar­cer­a­tion and cycles of vio­lence. But we also per­pet­u­ate harm for sur­vivors. After Janet Con­nors19-year-old son Joel was mur­dered dur­ing a bru­tal home inva­sion in Boston, she explained in the Julie Mal­lozi doc­u­men­tary Cir­cle Up, she found that the con­ven­tion­al penal sys­tem was only fur­ther­ing her trauma. 

So instead, Con­nors asked two of the men con­vict­ed of her son’s mur­der to par­tic­i­pate in a restora­tive jus­tice process with her.

Restora­tive jus­tice is a com­mu­ni­ty-based jus­tice process that engages those involved in an inci­dent — includ­ing sur­vivors and per­pe­tra­tors — in col­lab­o­ra­tive deci­sion mak­ing in order to restore the harm com­mit­ted. In her talks with the two men, Con­nors was giv­en the space to express the impact her son’s mur­der had had on her. The two men were able to appre­ci­ate the extent of the harm they’d caused, under­stand what events in their own lives had led up to the inci­dent, and slow­ly earn Con­nors’ forgiveness.

Now Con­nors works to bring restora­tive jus­tice to schools as an alter­na­tive to sus­pen­sion and reach­es out to oth­er sur­vivors through the Homi­cide Sup­port Ser­vices Program.

I believe there are a cou­ple of lay­ers to for­give­ness,” Con­nors told the Humankind radio show. There’s one with no strings attached. That’s more about spir­i­tu­al free­ing of self. One that makes sure that vengeance doesn’t eat you up, or turn your heart to stone.”

Then, she added, there’s a more prac­ti­cal lay­er.” To offend­ers, she says: You’re com­ing back out into our com­mu­ni­ty. If you keep doing dirt, then you’re hurt­ing our com­mu­ni­ty again. And for me, you might as well kill my son all over again.… [G]iving you for­give­ness … has some account­abil­i­ty, and that I expect you to lead a good life.”

Con­nors has found heal­ing and free­dom through account­abil­i­ty and for­give­ness. Both of her son’s mur­der­ers have had a suc­cess­ful re-entry into soci­ety and have not re-offended.

Cen­ter­ing Survivors

I recent­ly heard Danielle Sered speak about this rev­o­lu­tion­ary approach to vio­lence. Sered is a sur­vivor of vio­lent crime and the founder and direc­tor of Com­mon Jus­tice, a ground­break­ing project through the Vera Insti­tute of Jus­tice, a nation­al research and pol­i­cy orga­ni­za­tion that works to improve our country’s jus­tice system.

Sered’s orga­ni­za­tion receives refer­rals from the Brook­lyn Dis­trict Attorney’s office and diverts adults con­vict­ed of vio­lent felonies away from the prison sys­tem using restora­tive jus­tice prac­tices. But the pro­gram isn’t only appeal­ing to peo­ple fac­ing time behind bars: Sered has found that when she con­tacts sur­vivors of vio­lent crime and offers them an alter­na­tive to incar­cer­a­tion, the vast major­i­ty opt for the restora­tive jus­tice approach.

Sered finds this sur­pris­ing result entire­ly log­i­cal. To her, the belief that the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem is built on — that vic­tims want to see their offend­ers incar­cer­at­ed — is baseless.

Peo­ple know that the best result that that sys­tem can deliv­er if they engage in it is the incar­cer­a­tion of the per­son who hurt them,” she says. They don’t believe that that will deliv­er them the safe­ty and jus­tice they deserve.”

In fact, she observes, the vast major­i­ty of peo­ple who sur­vive vio­lence … pre­fer noth­ing to every­thing we have on offer.” That’s because many crime vic­tims live in places where they can see the fail­ing sys­tem first­hand. There is no one who it is hard­er to per­suade that incar­cer­a­tion pro­duces safe­ty than those who live in neigh­bor­hoods where incar­cer­a­tion is preva­lent,” Sered explains.

Restora­tive jus­tice, on the oth­er hand, boasts high rates of sur­vivor sat­is­fac­tion and has been found to reduce recidi­vism, ulti­mate­ly increas­ing pub­lic safety.

Rad­i­cal Belief

A restora­tive jus­tice approach insists that we can’t tru­ly pro­vide for pub­lic safe­ty with­out rehu­man­iz­ing the peo­ple who com­mit vio­lent acts. It main­tains that we must believe in their abil­i­ty to be more than the worst act they’ve ever com­mit­ted. It asserts that we have to believe in their abil­i­ty to tru­ly face the harm they’ve caused, while rec­og­niz­ing that most are vic­tims of vio­lence themselves.

Yet a restora­tive approach such as Sered’s pri­or­i­tizes sur­vivors’ needs as well, and works towards tru­ly reduc­ing violence.

If we’re seri­ous about end­ing vio­lence — and mass incar­cer­a­tion — we need to expand our ideas about who’s deserv­ing of empa­thy, and rad­i­cal­ly rethink our approach to vio­lent crime. Brave sur­vivors like Con­nors and Sered make a force­ful case that we can do that by bet­ting on people’s human­i­ty, not more jail cells.

Sophie Ban­dark­ar is a Next Leader on the Crim­i­nal­iza­tion of Race and Pover­ty Project at the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Studies.
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