In Common Justice’s latest report, “Accounting for Violence: How to Increase Safety and Break our Failed Reliance on Mass Incarceration,” you make the case that the United States “cannot end mass incarceration without tackling violence,” and you outline four principles to guide policies and practices that aim to reduce violence. How did these principles come about? How does Common Justice apply these principles to its work?
These principles emerged out of decades of listening to crime survivors and people who have committed violence, out of a series of convenings with some of the most brilliant leaders in the criminal justice and violence intervention fields, and out of a desire to map a way forward out of mass incarceration that leaves no one behind—neither the people who commit violence nor the victims of those crimes.
We live these principles at Common Justice every day. Our work is centered around the needs of survivors and rooted in a commitment to their healing; it is based in a belief in accountability as both an obligation and a right of those who have caused harm; it is unequivocally driven by a commitment to foster safety in both the short and long term and to halt cycles of violence; and it is rooted in our understanding that, if only because inequity is a driver of violence, there is no way out of violence that does not have at its heart a fundamental commitment to racial equity.
In your report you say, “[These] findings are not surprising to people who work closely with crime survivors, but they are entirely contrary to the public and law enforcement narrative about what victims want.” Please say more: what do victims want?
Victims want some basic things that we all deserve when we’ve been hurt. As a survivor, I share these basic desires:
- We want answers. These answers contribute to what the trauma recovery field talks about as the formation of a “coherent narrative”—a story about what happened and why; a story that the survivor can believe, make sense of, find some meaning in, and live with.
- We want our voices heard. An opportunity to express one’s experience and be heard is essential to forming a coherent narrative and having it validated—both core elements of trauma recovery.
- We want a sense of control relative to what happened to us. Trauma is, most fundamentally, an experience of powerlessness. Having experiences that counterbalance the sense of powerlessness with some degree of power and control—including over the story about and the response to that harm—can contribute substantially to a survivor’s healing process.
- We want the person to repair the harm as well as they possibly can. It is a basic human desire to want what is broken to be fixed, and to want those who broke it to take responsibility for that repair however possible. That repair greatly aids the healing process for survivors who experience it.
- And perhaps most essentially, we don’t want the person to hurt us or anyone else ever again.
Crucially, this last desire should not be equated with an appetite for incarceration. For many victims, incarceration delivers them neither a sense of justice nor a sense of safety. They want interventions that will bring about change, and many victims know that prisons are poorly equipped to generate positive transformation.
To reduce violence and mass incarceration, you recommend we prioritize “safety over politics.” Are there examples at the local or state level that show this is possible?
Prioritizing safety over politics means doing what works rather than what sells, and means abandoning antiquated “tough on crime” rhetoric in favor of a rational, informed commitment to what actually keeps us safe. We see police doing this when they decline to arrest people who are struggling with addiction and instead divert them to places where they can get help. We see it when voters choose to reduce sentencing and reinvest those dollars in victim services and community supports that prevent violence in the first place. We see it when prosecutors run campaigns based not on increased penalties, but increased justice, and commit to improving safety while also reducing mass incarceration. And we see it in the communities most impacted by violence day in and day out where residents reject harsh punishment and instead seek solutions that can keep everyone safe and whole.
Finally, what role could philanthropy play in order to support alternative approaches to mass incarceration and accountability?
Philanthropy can be a partner to innovators by supporting ideas that show enormous promise but may not yet be proven; by growing proven models to scale; by investing in the leadership of those most impacted by crime and incarceration in developing solutions for the future; by supporting the kind of organizing and communications efforts that can change the landscape and make new strategies possible; and by taking the kinds of courageous leaps and risks that government sometimes can’t. And finally, philanthropy can commit to investing in the long game to bring about lasting transformative change.
Common Justice is a project of Vera Institute of Justice (Vera), an independent national research and policy organization founded in 1961 with the mission to make the justice system more just, compassionate, and equitable. In 2016, the Heising-Simons Foundation made a grant to Vera to support Common Justice’s strategic communications.