Danielle Sered envisioned, launched and directs grantee partner Common Justice. The organization develops and advances solutions to violence that transform the lives of those harmed and foster racial equity without relying on incarceration.
Sered has just released Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration and a Road to Justice, a groundbreaking, insightful book that explores the idea of restorative justice, challenges our ideas of incarceration and offers readers a restorative approach to violent crime. We took a few moments to speak with Sered about her book, the future of mass incarceration and our justice system and how past experiences have shaped her.
Can you tell us about a time when you personally had to reckon or deal with the idea of punishment? What did this early lesson teach you and how does this live in your personal work as a leader?
As an adolescent, I made the kinds of mistakes adolescents make, and a handful of them landed me in the criminal justice system. In the most serious of those instances, I was met with mercy and my dear friend and codefendant (a young Black man) was met with severe punishment. I learned then about the racial disparities in the criminal justice system as someone who benefited from them.
I left that experience knowing two things that would take me a long time to figure out how to live into:
(1) that it was my job from that day forward to make racial inequity my enemy, to find and join with those who were fighting it and to persist in that fight until we won or I died, whichever came first; and
(2) that system actors in the criminal justice system have an extraordinary amount of discretion and can act humanely when they choose to—which means that while legislative work is critical, the culture change work that affects those actors and the broader pressures that constrain and shape their behaviors are critical to large scale reform.
Can you tell us what is the primary message of the book and why it’s important at this time?
As consensus and momentum to end mass incarceration have grown, the current reform narrative, though compelling, has been based on a fallacy: that the United States can achieve large-scale transformative change (that is, reductions of 50 percent or more) by changing responses to nonviolent offenses. But in a country where more than half of its population are incarcerated for crimes of violence, we will not end mass incarceration until we stop avoiding the central challenge of displacing prison as our primary response to harm.
When efforts to reduce the nation’s use of incarceration move beyond a focus on nonviolent crime, they face a wide range of deep-seated and well-known challenges, both political and practical. Such efforts come up against the continued salience of “tough on crime” and “law and order” rhetoric. There is also the limited power of data as a tool to shape public opinion, deep misconceptions about who crime survivors are and what they want, persistent tentativeness of forward-thinking elected officials to enter this terrain, and the need to develop capacity to foster and demonstrate solutions that can take its place.
Crossing the line and dealing with violence also opens up a range of possibilities not otherwise available—possibilities that will be even more essential in the current political landscape. It allows people to think holistically about the communities profoundly affected by violence and incarceration, not just about small segments of those neighborhoods. It allows people to center the needs of crime survivors in their vision, not tiptoe around them or engage them in a limited instrumental fashion. It also allows people to envision a justice system that is not just smaller, but truly transformed into the vehicle for accountability, safety and justice that everyone deserves.
What does the U.S. have to reckon with in order to pave a healthy way forward?
We have to reckon with our centuries-old history of racism and racial inequity and its persistence into the present. We have to acknowledge that the growth of mass incarceration is part of a continuous pattern of harm dating back to slavery and colonization, and we have to have the integrity, honesty, and courage to acknowledge those harms and engage in a process of repairing them.
What is our movement currently missing or not seeing that is really important to help build out this road ahead?
We have too long bought into the myth that survivors want prison and that prison heals them and keeps them safe.
To the contrary: survivors know better than anyone else the limitations of prison as a tool to produce safety. They have paid for that failure with their own pain. When we get past the distortion of survivors’ pain and needs in the public discourse, we find that we—those of us who want something different and better than the system as we know it—are the majority. When we know that, we can stop acting like the outlier radical thinkers we have been told we are and instead behave as powerful majorities do: as a group capable of insisting on change and ushering in a better way.
The Andrus Family Fund is proud to partner with Common Justice in the fight for racial equality without incarceration. To learn more about Sered and her work, listen to this Out of the Margins podcast episode or read this blog post.