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Danielle Sered: To End Mass Incarceration, We Must Radically Change How We Approach Violence

Web ExclusiveMarch 15, 2019
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An extended conversation with Danielle Sered, executive director of Common Justice, a Brooklyn-based organization that offers alternatives to incarceration for people charged with violent felonies. She says that ending mass incarceration will require a radical change in the way our society approaches violence. Her new book is titled “Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair.”

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. We are continuing Part 2 with Danielle Sered, the author of Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair.

A federal judge in Washington, D.C., just sentenced President Trump’s former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, Wednesday to an additional 43 months in prison on criminal conspiracy charges. The new sentence means Manafort will serve a seven-and-a-half-year prison term, after he was sentenced last week by a federal judge in Virginia on eight counts of bank fraud and tax evasion. Moments after Manafort received his sentence, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. unsealed an indictment charging Manafort with 16 counts of residential mortgage fraud and conspiracy. President Trump hasn’t ruled out a pardon for his former campaign chair, but Trump will not have the power to pardon Manafort on the New York charges, if Manafort is convicted.

Danielle Sered is executive director of Common Justice, a Brooklyn-based organization that offers alternatives to incarceration for people charged with violent felonies. It’s the first program of its kind in the country.

So, you may ask: Why are we talking to her about Manafort? Where do you come down on this issue? I mean, you’re talking about violent crime, Danielle.

DANIELLE SERED: So I think when we—there’s been such a strong reaction to perceived lenience in Manafort’s sentence. And on the one hand, it’s exactly right. I think it’s absolutely the case that wealthy white people in the criminal justice system fare far better than poor people and people of color ever do and ever have in our country. And so our outrage at that inequity is well placed.

The idea that what we look for to resolve it is increased sentences for the wealthy white folks in that system is not where the solution lies. I think one of the biggest lessons in Manafort’s sentencing is that it doesn’t—fundamentally changing the sentencing practices in our criminal justice system does not actually require changing any laws whatsoever. It requires that the actors in that system exercise their discretion differently. So prosecutors could end mass incarceration tomorrow by choosing to charge people on lower-level crimes than they do, crimes that come with lower-level sentences. They make those decisions in plea-bargaining processes all the time, where they offer someone a plea to a lower charge in exchange for a shorter sentence. And so, while legislation shapes and constrains what our sentencing will look like, the actors in that system have a vast array of—like a vast amount of discretion that they exercise, and that discretion is usually exercised in favor of white people.

Part of what has to happen as a culture is that we have to demand that the same, whether it is mercy or compassion or leniency or a recognition that prison is just not the thing that will change behavior, we have to apply those same sorts of analyses to the people of color who come through the system as we do to the wealthy white men who do.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you talk about, Danielle, some of the examples that you cite in your book of the kind of restorative justice that you your organization advocates?

DANIELLE SERED: Sure. So, I shared in the earlier segment that as part of the process, people reach agreements as to how the person can make things as right as possible. Some of those are what you’d expect. They’re community service. They’re restitution. They’re going to school, getting work. But others are really particular to the cases.

So, many years ago now, we had a case in which a man was on his way home from work. He was an immigrant to this country. He worked for cash in a restaurant. On his way home, he was robbed and brutally assaulted by somebody in his neighborhood. The crime affected him the way those crimes affect survivors. And so, he suffered from classic symptoms of trauma. He became really withdrawn, really afraid, really nervous. He would say, when he walked down the street even, if anyone came up behind him, even a little old lady, his heart would race, and his mind would race, and his stomach would turn. And it meant he started taking cabs home from work, which took half of his week’s wages. None of us can afford a 50 percent pay cut, but he certainly could not. And it rippled through the entirety of his life.

When we got to that process with the young man who hurt him, we had been deep into the dialogue. And at some point, the young man who caused that harm said to him, “You know, every man older than me in my family served at least 10 years in prison. My older brother served 11. And in each of those 11 years, he won the prison boxing league championship. And that brother is the one who taught me how to fight, and I showed you the wrong end of it on the street that night. But he’s also the person who taught me how to defend myself. And if you want, I’ll teach you that, too.”

And the talking stick—we have a little stick. You talk when you have it; you don’t when you don’t. It goes around the circle to the person who was hurt. And he says, “I would love that.”

So we, after consulting with our lawyers to craft a careful consent form, bring together this young man who committed this robbery and the young man he hurt in a martial arts studio, where the young man who committed that harm teaches him those things. And so, first, the young man who caused—who committed the robbery stands as though he’s being restrained, and demonstrates how one breaks free of those restraints. And then they switch positions. And this young survivor is standing, being held by the exact same man who held him on the street, only this time that man is coaching him through how to break out of that hold. And at first the young man is holding him gently, though eventually he’s holding him with his whole strength. And repeatedly, with this new skill, the survivor is able, over and over and over, to break himself free.

The next day, that survivor called me on my cellphone, which is widely understood as being for emergencies only, and said, “Danielle, I’m calling you to tell you nothing happened.” Which didn’t sound like an emergency. And I said to him, “Can you say more?” And he said, “I just walked by a 6-foot-4 man, and nothing happened.” Meaning his heart didn’t race, his mind didn’t race, his stomach didn’t turn. He had about half an hour before he had to go to work, and so he went to Times Square so he could walk by as many people as possible. I contend this may be the only really positive story about Times Square anywhere. And he’s on the phone with me, and I hear him. He’s like, “Hold on. There’s a tall one,” and like run across the street and say, “Nothing. Like nothing.”

And I challenge any of us to say he didn’t deserve that. Like that this young man, who survived this awful crime, that he didn’t deserve to be released from that. And for all our rhetoric and all our attachment to punishment for punishment’s sake and all the things we say we do in victims’ names, most of what we do is to cut off the avenues to the kind of healing and repair and release that would actually let them move forward in their lives in the way they truly deserve to.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the story of one of your mentors and what happened to her.

DANIELLE SERED: So, when I was in college in Atlanta, I did a lot of work there, and one of my mentors, this woman Miss Annie, was really terribly assaulted and terribly injured, and an elder woman. And she called the police, and the police responded, respectfully, and the person who hurt her was arrested. And the case actually went to trial, which fewer than 5 percent do. And the person was actually convicted, and he was actually convicted to the maximum sentence.

And so, it’s the kind of case that, in theory, is the criminal justice system acting perfectly, like acting effectively in ways it virtually never does. And I was talking to her about it, and I said to her, “You know, with all respect, Miss Annie, when he was sentenced, were you relieved?” And she said, “Well, yes, of course.” And I said, “And how long did that relief last?” And she said, “Oh, at least three or four hours.” And she said, “But then I went home, and I was still afraid, walking from the bus to my apartment. And I got into my apartment, and I was still poor. And I went to sleep, and I still couldn’t fall asleep. And when I finally collapsed from exhaustion, I was still awakened by the same nightmares. And I woke up that next morning, and I realized the only thing that was different was that I could not shake the image of that boy’s mother’s face, because that’s my face.”

We have a promise we make to victims that somehow this process is going to deliver them from what was done to them. And we make that promise in the absence of any evidence whatsoever that it will. So, there’s a fair amount of research that say victims prefer to see somebody—some victims will prefer incarceration. If a case goes to trial, they want a guilty conviction. Those things happen. There is no evidence whatsoever that the fact or length of that sentence in any way actually minimizes the symptoms and pain they experience from the harm.

AMY GOODMAN: In this last minute, Danielle, where do you—where have you experienced the most success?

DANIELLE SERED: We do best in the most serious cases. And that’s because restorative justice brings you face to face with the human impact of what you’ve done, so the greater the harm, the greater your responsibility and the deeper your response to it. So the inclination to apply restorative justice to the lowest-possible-level harm is actually exactly backward. It is powered by the severity of what was done. And the more serious it is, the more power is available in that process.

AMY GOODMAN: And if someone wants to go through this—I mean, you’re bucking the system all ways—how do they? You have everyone in the criminal justice system saying, “Stay away. You don’t want to engage. What? Are you kidding? This is your—the perpetrator. This is a criminal who hurt you.” You have your family that wants to protect you.

DANIELLE SERED: So, to their great credit, the district attorneys in Brooklyn and the Bronx work with us closely. It’s only with their partnership that we could actually secure the dismissal of the felonies at the end of the case. And so, part of what has to happen is that system actors, who got into that work to do things like produce safety and to do things like advance justice, have to contend with the ways in which the tools available for them, up until this point, have been inadequate to accomplish those goals, and have to be ready to embrace different tools. They’ll only do that when their constituents ask and tell them to do so, and support them when they take those risks.

AMY GOODMAN: Danielle Sered, we thank you so much for being with us. Danielle Sered, executive director of Common Justice, a Brooklyn-based organization that offers alternatives to incarceration for people charged with violent felonies, the first program of its kind in the country. She’s the author of the new book, Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair.

To see Part 1 of our conversation, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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