When offered the choice, violence survivors will choose restorative justice over prison time for those responsible. In the case of the nonprofit Common Justice, 90% of survivors of violent crimes agree to meet with the responsible party, and allow alternative punishments to time in prison. Common Justice’s founder, Danielle Sered, joins us in conversation about the remarkable work of this nonprofit and the people – both survivors and responsible persons – whose lives have been impacted, and how such alternatives meet the deep, underlying needs of survivors for more meaningful closure. Sered also discusses alternatives to policing, and how these too can offer communities, long harmed by the justice system, the chance to heal and find safety on their own terms.
Danielle Sered envisioned, launched, and directs the nonprofit organization Common Justice. She leads the project’s efforts locally and nationally to develop and advance practical and groundbreaking solutions to violence that advance racial equity, meet the needs of those harmed, and do not rely on incarceration. Before planning the launch of Common Justice, Sered served as the deputy director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Adolescent Reentry Initiative, a program for young men returning from incarceration on Rikers Island. Prior to joining Vera, she worked at the Center for Court Innovation's Harlem Community Justice Center, where she led its programs for court-involved and recently incarcerated youth.
Her book, Until We Reckon, received the Award for Journalism from the National Association for Community and Restorative Justice and was selected by the National Book Foundation for its Literature for Justice recognition. An Ashoka fellow and Stoneleigh fellow, Sered received her BA from Emory University and her masters degrees from New York University and Oxford University (UK), where she studied as a Rhodes Scholar.
As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, The Aspen Institute is nonpartisan and does not endorse, support, or oppose political candidates or parties. Further, the views and opinions of our guests and speakers do not necessarily reflect those of The Aspen Institute.
Visit us online at The Aspen Institute Criminal Justice Reform Initiative and follow us on Twitter @AspenCJRI.
November 10, 2021
Copyright 2021 Aspen Institute Criminal Justice Reform Initiative
Welcome to Shades of Freedom, from the Aspen Institute's Criminal Justice Reform Initiative. This week's guest is Danielle Sered, Executive Director of Common Justice.
Danielle Sered (00:11):
If there is something we know to do that can deliver him from his pain, and at the same time, ensure that the person who hurt him hurts nobody ever again, what right do we have to do anything else?
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (00:29):
Welcome to Shades of Freedom. I'm your host, Douglas Wood, Director of the Aspen Institute's Criminal Justice or Reform Initiative. Our guest today is Danielle Sered, Founder and Director of Common Justice. Previously, Danielle served as a Deputy Director of the Vera Institute of Justice's Adolescent Reentry Initiative. Prior to joining Vera, she worked at the Center for Court Innovation's Harlem Community Justice Center, where she led its programs for court-involved and recently incarcerated youth. She has designed and directed programs that teach conflict resolution through the arts and schools and juvenile detention centers, has had extensive involvement in gang intervention work, and has developed and implemented violence, intervention, and trauma-informed care practices and curricula. Danielle, welcome to Shades of Freedom.
Danielle Sered (01:22):
Thank you. It's a delight to be here with you today.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (01:25):
Danielle, what is Common Justice and what are the alternatives to incarceration that it offers?
Danielle Sered (01:31):
So Common Justice develops and advances solutions to violence that meet the needs of those who are harmed advanced racial equity, and don't rely on incarceration. We do policy and organizing work. We do communications work focused on changing the narrative about violence. And at our core, we operate the first alternative to incarceration in the United States in the adult courts to focus on crimes of violence. The intervention we offer is based in restorative justice, if and only if the survivors of violence agree. Cases like robberies, and stabbings, and other serious forms of violence are diverted from the criminal legal system into a restorative justice process, where after extensive preparation, the person who causes harm sits with the person they've harmed and their respective support people and come to agreements about how they can make things as right as possible. For the responsible party, those agreements replace the prison sentence they otherwise would've served. And while they're going through that process and thereafter, we provide wraparound support to the survivors to help them come through what happened to them and in their lives generally.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (02:45):
Danielle, you have such a fascinating and interesting background. Can you tell us something of your personal history and how it's informed your founding of Common Justice?
Danielle Sered (02:56):
Sure. I grew up in Chicago and I sort of came of age there around the same time that mass incarceration in its current shape and form did. And so in the late '80s and early '90s, mass incarceration was really beginning to take shape as the dominant form of punishment and social control and response to harm that we've come to know it to be. And I saw people go away, almost all people of color. I saw this sort of shame and often silence that surrounded that for their family members, the disruption to those family units, to the people who loved them. And I saw people come home and people were almost always worse for where they had been. And in watching that, it made me consider why we were doing it. And the dominant narrative told us all that the reason we were doing it was for the victims of those crimes.
Danielle Sered (03:55):
But I, myself, am a survivor. Many of the people I grew up with and around were also survivors. And so I started paying attention to my own experience, to the experience of those around me. And what I found was that first, actually, very few of us wanted and sought incarceration in our names. There was a huge disconnect between our experience and desires and what the narrative was saying we all wanted. And even for those who wanted it and got it, incarceration never healed them. It never delivered on the promise of healing, and it didn't even deliver on the promise of safety, because the conditions that gave rise to the violence we experienced were unchanged by the removal of one particular individual from that larger community. And so in seeing that, both as somebody who cared deeply about those who were being incarcerated, and who cared deeply about those who were hurt, I became really curious about what we might do instead.
Danielle Sered (04:58):
When I was an adolescent, I did stupid things because I was an adolescent. We all do, but I was white then too. And so when I did those stupid things, I was met with mercy. I was met with a lot of grace. I was met with curiosity about why a kid would engage in such harm and what might have happened to me, what might be going on in my life, what else I might be capable of instead with the right supports. And the young people of color, with whom I got into that trouble, were never met with that same mercy or that same grace. And in understanding the racial disparities in the criminal legal system, as a beneficiary of those disparities, I understood that it would have to be my life's work to find people who were fighting that inequity to join with them in that fight and to fight together until I died or we won, whichever came first.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (05:58):
You've cited the remarkable statistic that 90% of survivors choose Common Justice over incarceration. Can you explain why so many people choose it?
Danielle Sered (06:08):
Yeah. So I said earlier that cases only come into the project if the victims of those crimes agree. And it's important to remember that half of crime victims don't call police in the first place. It's actually, to me, one of the most damning indictments of the criminal justice system we have, and it takes a lot to rank high on the most damning of that list. Another half of those survivors who do engage the police in some way won't participate beyond grand jury, beyond the first evidentiary hearing where they're to participate. And so 75% of survivors have already opted out of what the criminal justice system has to offer for their safety and healing. Those of us who actually care about survivors and care about safety should find that very bracing and very alarming. And it should motivate us centrally to think about what other solutions might exist.
Danielle Sered (06:58):
But of those remaining survivors, the people who are on a path likely to result in the incarceration of the person who hurt them, those are the survivors we reach out to a Common Justice and we say, "Do you want to see the person who hurt you incarcerated? Or do you want them in Common Justice?" And 90% choose us. It's a wild number. And when I first saw that number, I was really encouraged about human beings. I thought we are kinder than I knew. We're more merciful. We say, "But for the grace of God, go I." We see ourselves in each other. We see our children and other people's children. And it was a really hopeful time for me. And then over time, I came to understand that what was happening was a little different from that. And it was something I should have known as a survivor myself.
Danielle Sered (07:48):
And the best way I've been able to describe this is that as survivors, we will feel pain so deep. We would like wring out our bones to be free of it, like from the marrow there. And we will feel fear so all consuming that in the safety of our own homes, in the arms of the people we trust most, we will be unable to sleep. And when exhaustion finally takes us, we will wake from that sleep with nightmares. And we will feel rage so all consuming it makes us unrecognizable even to ourselves. But at the end of the day, we are pragmatic. There are two things we can't stand. We cannot stand the idea of going through it again. And we cannot stand the idea of anyone else going through what we went through. And so if we are presented with a choice, we will choose the thing we think is likeliest to prevent those things we can't stand.
Danielle Sered (08:46):
And we'll do that even as we rage. And we'll do that even as we're afraid. And we'll do that even as we still tremble with loss, because those two things are non-negotiables. And so when a survivor is seeking their own safety and the safety of their loved one, they don't have to be merciful to choose something else. They don't have to be loving and compassionate to choose something else. They have to be practical to choose something else. And I know at the end of the day, the pragmatism of survivors will always rise. And it's from that place, most often, that survivors say yes.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (09:26):
How do both the survivor and the responsible individual participate in the restorative justice process, and how do your restorative justice circle support their dialogue?
Danielle Sered (09:35):
So first, it's important that both parties go through really extensive preparation. Our responsible parties see us five days a week for at least three months before they come into that room with the person they harmed. So we take the physical and emotional safety of that process really seriously. And we understand that our society doesn't train us in accountability. It doesn't prime us to own what we've done. And the court system in particular teaches us the opposite. It teaches us to be silent or to say "not guilty." And that's it like, that's the only thing in our interest. And so our first work is really extracting people who have caused harm from this culture of punishment, which has baked into it a culture of denial, into a culture of accountability, a culture where they can say, "I did something and it was dead wrong. And I owe something and I'm ready to offer that thing I owe to you, the person I hurt."
Danielle Sered (10:31):
And with the harmed party, we ask them what they think that repair might look like. And for many of them, it's a crazy question because they've never been asked. All the criminal justice system asks is sort of, "How many years feels right?" And years of someone else's life is a weird unit to measure your own pain. And so in these circle processes, the question is, "What was burned and what does it look like to rebuild it?" And that in our cases, it often means addressing the trauma that our harmed parties experienced, addressing the fear they experienced, addressing the symptoms of post traumatic stress, addressing the injuries they endured, the ongoing physical and psychological pain, the effect on the people who love them and who witnessed them in their pain and where their ability to show up has been diminished or changed in some way by what was done to them. And for the person who caused that harm to bear witness to all of that and to acknowledge their responsibility for it.
Danielle Sered (11:33):
That alone is transformative for survivors. Our pain being validated is incredibly important. And then the other thing survivors want to do is they want to ask questions. "Why did you do it? Was it because of who you think I am? Was it something I did? Was it a real gun? Were you going to shoot? What if I had fought back? What if I hadn't fought back?" All the things they want to know. And that desire is insatiable in survivors, and we're right to want it. The psychological literature talks about what they call the formation of a coherent narrative, which is just a story about what happened that I can live with, that describes the way the things are, and the way the world is, that is a world I want to keep occupying. And the formation of that coherent narrative is always undermined by the gaps in our understanding of what happened.
Danielle Sered (12:27):
And there is almost no one anywhere who can fill those gaps more or better than the person who did it, who can tell us why, who can tell us if it was a gun, who could tell us what would've happened. And so just the fact of receiving those answers, even if those answers are infuriating, even if they're disappointing, even if they're ugly, help form that narrative, which we know helps to release survivors from trauma. But restorative justice is not just about talking. It is also about action. And so we talk about accountability at Common Justice, not as saying, "Sorry," or being sorry, but doing sorry. What does an apology look like as a set of actions? And so the second part of those circles is about answering that question. What would repair look like? Now that we know the harm that's been caused, now that we know the impact, now that the person who has done it has acknowledged their responsibility for it, how do we start to envision repair?
Danielle Sered (13:28):
And almost always, the circles come up with three categories of things. We never require this, and it's still always emerges. The first are things that are about repair to the person who was harmed, replacing their stolen property, apologizing to them, apologizing to their family, doing things that are a direct benefit to them and their healing. The second category are things that are likely to result in the transformation of the person who caused harm. And that connects to the survivor's desire to know that that person won't hurt them or anyone else ever again. And so that may be going to school, getting and keeping a job, engaging in therapy, engaging with a mentor, participating in a community that they trust will help anchor them when they're faced with decisions, those sorts of things. And then the last category is about paying it forward, things the responsible party can do in the world that mean that something good came of this bad, which is important for both of them.
Danielle Sered (14:31):
And that's often things like talking to younger kids who may be engaged in similar harmful behavior to help encourage them to make different choices, volunteering at a place that's of meaning to the person who was hurt, doing something, creating something, making something that is of use to others. And that helps create that world that the survivor wants, where no one will experience what they did. And those agreements become the commitment, the responsible party upholds for the year that follows the circle.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (15:07):
Can you tell us a story from the many years that you've employed the restorative justice process that you feel particularly illustrates Common Justice's mission and impact?
Danielle Sered (15:16):
In one of our earliest cases, the harmed party was on his way home from work. He was an immigrant to this country living in Brooklyn. He worked at a restaurant for cash until very late at night. He was coming home and he was robbed and really brutally beaten by the responsible party on his way home. And that assault had the effect on him that many traumatic events have on survivors. And he experienced pretty classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress. He experienced hyper vigilance. He experienced nightmares. He withdrew from his life. He withdrew from his relationships. He described it saying that if anyone came up behind him, including if it was a "little old lady," his mind would race and his heart would race and his stomach would turn. And because that fear felt so awful, he went almost nowhere. He started taking cabs home from work, which cost him half of his day's wages, which he should not, he could not afford to lose. And it changed his ability to move through his life dramatically. Completely.
Danielle Sered (16:26):
When we got to the restorative justice circle with the person who hurt him, at one stage in the process, that young man shared and said "Every man older than me in my family has served at least a decade in prison. And my older brother served 11 years. And each of those years, he won the prison boxing league championship. And he's the one who taught me how to fight. And that night on the street, I showed you the wrong side of that. But my brother is also the person who taught me to defend myself. And if you would like, I would teach you that too." And the talking stick went around to him and none of us could say anything because we didn't have the stick. So as the vision of my general counsel passed before my eyes thinking about the risk this would entail from our normal legal framework, the stick kept me quiet and it went to the harmed party and he would said, "I would love that."
Danielle Sered (17:22):
And so we set up a session in a local dojo with a trained martial arts instructor, because it's important to know what you know and what you don't know to do. And in that dojo, the young man who had assaulted him taught him how to release himself from the exact same hold in which he had held him. And so first, the young man who caused that pain was standing as though he was the one being held and modeling how to release himself from that grip. And then they switched positions. And this young man was being held, not just in the same way, but by the same person who had held him on that night, that was the source of all this pain and all this disruption in his life. And that young man now is coaching him through how to get out of it saying, "Okay, oh, it's a little to the left, a little left. Okay, there that's the spot."
Danielle Sered (18:13):
And first, he's holding him pretty gently as he practices it. But in time, he's holding him with all his strength and over and over and over again. This young man, the survivor, releases himself from his grip. We go home that day and the next day my phone rings and it's the harmed party, the survivor calling me. And he said, "I just walked by a six foot man on the street and nothing happened." His mind didn't race, his heart didn't race, his stomach didn't turn. Tell me he doesn't deserve that. And if there is something we know to do that can deliver him from his pain, and at the same time, ensure that the person who hurt him hurts nobody ever again, what right do we have to do anything else?
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (19:02):
Wow. That's such a powerful story. What does Common Justice do to not only help the individuals affected by crime as you've talked about, but the greater community they belong to? And this also includes both the survivors and the offending individual.
Danielle Sered (19:21):
So there are a few ways we think about the impact of our work on the broader community. One is that members of that community are at times part of the circles. Members of that community benefit from being in community with people who have been accountable, with people who have healed. In the same way the effects of incarceration ripple through not just households, but buildings, blocks, whole neighborhoods, so too did the effects of transformative responses to harm.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (19:51):
In addition to implementing alternatives to incarceration in your work, as you've so eloquently discussed, you and one of our former guests, the amazing Amanda Alexander, have an article in the Boston review on alternatives to policing, titled Making Communities Safe Without the Police. Can you summarize some of its main points?
Danielle Sered (20:11):
Everyone needs listen to Amanda's episode of this podcast immediately, including if it means you don't even finish this one. She is extraordinarily brilliant and I learn every time I talk to her. And she and I wrote a piece that really tries to situate this larger conversation about defund the police, in a conversation that is actually about the production of safety. And so it is about understanding why policing has failed to make us safe and what will and can. And on the first part, what we know is that the core drivers of violence are structural, are structural inequities, and that policing and incarceration double down, reinforce, and grow those inequities. And in that way, are always productive of violence. We know on the individual level, the core drivers of violence are shame, isolation, exposure to violence, and an inability to meet one's economic needs. And the core features of prison are shame, isolation, exposure to violence, and an inability to meet one's economic needs.
Danielle Sered (21:20):
And so our solutions are like showing up at a house fire with a hose full of gasoline and acting confused when the flames rage higher. But I think the most important part of the piece Amanda and I wrote together is about the solutions that are present. Communities have always been working to produce their own safety. The safety that we have to the degree it exists is a credit to those solutions. Those include things like the restorative justice processes we've been talking about here. They include violence interrupters who show up, not just in the media aftermath of an instance of violence, but just before one is likely to take place, to try and prevent it. They include the mothers who have lost their own children, who show up to other mothers who have lost theirs to support them through their grief, and together reduce the likelihood of retaliatory violence.
Danielle Sered (22:17):
They include healing work that knows that pain comes of pain. And that every time we heal pain, we reduce the likelihood that others will get hurt in the future. And so what Amanda and I argue is that the notion that we don't know what to do is fundamentally mistaken. The criminal legal system doesn't know what to do, but it has been given room to reign supreme over the question of what to do about harm. If we reorient that power to answer, "How will we keep each other safe?" to the communities that depend on that safety to the people who will live or die based on whether or not those answers are right, we will find that as these solutions elevate, so too does the safety that they all deserve.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (23:06):
Do you think that abolition of the criminal justice system, as it is today is possible? If so, what are the necessary steps to achieve it?
Danielle Sered (23:16):
Yes. And I think it's really... When I think about abolition, I think all the time about some of my first teachers in it, the people I read when I was first exploring what seemed like a really crazy idea, like Dr. Angela Davis and Dr. Ruthie Wilson Gilmore. And what they teach is that abolition is not mostly about tearing down. It is mostly about the development of structures and the society that render prisons and punishment obsolete. And so the question is not just, what do we want to do away with? It's a question that is to me about displacement. How do we develop the things that will take the place of these death making institutions? And then how do we develop the power to ensure that those things that work become the central responses for our society?
Danielle Sered (24:14):
I am in this work initially, as what I would call, a violence abolitionist. As a survivor, I want to live in a world without violence. I want that badly for myself and for others. And so if that's what I want, what I do is I look around in my culture for the things that produce violence and I try to eliminate those, the same way. If there were like a nasty stench in your house. You would look for where that stench was coming from, and you would try to get rid of it if you wanted to live in a home that smelled good. And anyone who honestly looks through our culture, for the sources of violence, for what is producing violence at the level we're experiencing it, will find prisons and policing to be one of the core culprits for why violence is such a defining feature of who we are. And so you don't have to hate prisons to want to get rid of them. You have to hate violence to want to get rid of them.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (25:13):
We always ask our guests the same final question, which is when you hear the phrase, Shades of Freedom, what does it mean to you now and into the future?
Danielle Sered (25:25):
So I love this question. And when I first thought about it I thought about shades reflecting the different degrees of freedom people experience in this nation. And what is so evidently clear to any of us with our eyes open that black and brown people, indigenous folks, and other folks of color, experience a vastly reduced version of freedom than what is available to white people, in a way that has always been true, that has defined us, that is in the fundamental bones of this country as we built it. But as I thought about it more, all of that is true, but I really thought about this idea of shades. And thinking about like, "If you're in the shade, what does that mean?" And fundamentally, if you're in the shade, it means that there is something between you and the light. And I think it really is a beautiful way to think about how we censor an understanding of structural violence in the making of safety.
Danielle Sered (26:34):
And by that, I mean, if you saw someone in the shade and all you did was look at them to try and figure out the source of the relative darkness, you would never be able to do it because what is happening is that there is something between them and the light. And the thing between black and brown people and that light of freedom are the structural barriers we have developed. They are the institutions founded in white supremacy. They're the brutality of our prison system, the inadequacy of our education and health system. They are the food deserts that are not places where things are absence, but where that absence is created and generated. And people are all fundamentally, naturally in possession of freedom, fundamentally and naturally as deserving of that light as anybody else. And so for me, the question is like, "What is the obstruction causing that shade, and how do we tear down that obstruction?" And I think that points us to solutions are not focused on the individual, but that are focused on the larger systems that stand between people and the freedom that they fundamentally deserve.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (27:55):
Thank you so much, Danielle. It's been so great having you on Shades of Freedom. We'll be following your work ahead and we hope everyone reads your amazing article with Amanda. And we'll talk to you soon.
Danielle Sered (28:07):
Thank you so much for having me. It's been a delight.
Thanks for joining us for Shades of Freedom, from the Aspen Institute's Criminal Justice Reform Initiative. We'll be back soon with more thought-provoking guests, so please subscribe on your favorite podcast app. This podcast was produced by Lynnea Domienik, with research assistance by Willem Patrick. It was edited by Ken Thompson. Special thanks to Christian Devers and Wanda Mann. CJRI's programs are made possible by support from Arnold Ventures, Bank of America Charitable Foundation, Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, Ford Foundation, The Balmer Group, and Community Foundation for Southwest Michigan.