Unlike with drugs or other low-level crimes, you never hear the oft-repeated phrase “we can’t incarcerate our way out of the problem” if that problem is violent crime.
But that is beginning to change.
“I realized we are never going to incarcerate ourselves to safety and we are never going to change our communities by only putting people in prison,” Brooklyn (NY) Acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez told a Vera Institute panel in Manhattan yesterday.
Violent offenders make up a majority of the U.S. prison population, but discussions of how best to reduce mass incarceration often avoid this thorny and complicated issue. To take a stab at the problem, the Brooklyn DA’s office has one of a small but growing number of programs that are testing the idea that it’s possible to reduce incarceration and lower violent crime simultaneously.
Gonzalez’s office has partnered with Brooklyn-based Common Justice, a project of the Vera Institute that operates an alternative-to-incarceration program which brings offenders and victims together with members of their community to reach an agreement about how the responsible person can make amends for their crime.
So far, his office and Common Justice have worked on 70 cases to find alternatives to incarceration that they believe can better serve crime victims — and also hold offenders accountable by making them face people they’ve hurt.
“In Brooklyn, we’ve taken the approach that we can have it all,” Gonzalez said. “We can have public safety, we can have a fairer criminal justice system and we can reduce our overall reliance on incarceration,”.
This idea that a survivor-centered approach can both lower violent crime and reduce incarceration is the focus of a recently released report from Common Justice entitled “Accounting for Justice: How to Increase Safety and Break Our Failed Reliance on Mass Incarceration.”
The report was a focus of a conference hosted by the Vera Institute at Tumblr on 21st Street yesterday, which included the panel at which Gonzalez spoke.
Marlon Peterson of Open Society Foundations called the conference, which brought together criminal justice experts, community workers, crime victims and ex-offenders from all over the country, a “groundbreaking conversation of addressing violence differently.”
To tackle mass incarceration, states and municipalities across the country have in recent years enacted reforms and created programs with alternatives to incarceration for drugs and low-level crimes.
But not violent felonies.
Danielle Sered, director of Common Justice and the author of the reportsaid that discussions on reform need to include violent crime as well. She added that a survivor-centered approach to violent crime will lead to more accountability and a reduction in incarceration.
“We will not end violence until we end mass incarceration,” Sered told the conference. “It’s not just a failed solution to violence, it is generative of violence.”
The report expanded on her argument:
"Regardless of the type of violence in question,U.S. justice systems typically rely on incarceration as the single blunt instrument in their toolbox — all without any data-driven indications that it is the tool most likely to secure the short- and long-term safety of the survivors and others who have a stake in the outcome."
According to Sered, the assumption that the public and law enforcement want harsh prison sentences for violent offenders is false. She cited a national poll published last year by the Alliance for Safety and Justice which found that About 52 percent of crime victims agreed with the notion that “time in prison makes people more likely to commit another crime rather than less likely.”
“Perhaps for that reason, 69 percent of victims preferred holding people accountable through options beyond prison, such as rehabilitation, mental health treatment, drug treatment, community supervision, or community service,” Sered wrote in the report.
During a panel of crime survivors, Susan Jackson, whose 24-year-old son was murdered, questioned whether the man who killed her son was changed at all during prison.
“Mass incarceration for me, doesn’t work if there’s not a plan in place to rehabilitate,” Jackson said. “If you’re not going to rehabilitate, then what we’re forming here is reincarnation that keeps going on and on and on,”.
Donnell Penny, now a case coordinator at Common Justice, described his own story. He committed a violent crime against someone whom he later sat down with as part of Common Justice’s program.
Sitting down with someone he harmed worked in ways that prison did not, he said.
“What if you had to show ‘I’m sorry’ instead of saying ‘I’m sorry’? You can’t do that in prison,” said Penny. “You cannot answer to your community or the people you hurt from prison.”
The speakers agreed change will take time.
Gonzalez admitted this survivor-centered approach is not something other DA’s in New York or around the country are doing. But he’s trying to transform the system and change the way prosecutors view success.
He said he tells his office to focus on “how many lives you’ve saved” and “how many chances you create for public safety that don’t include incarceration or the metric of wins and losses.”
“I came through a system that really judged me on, ‘Could I win a trial? Could I secure convictions?’ and I’m trying to change that within the office, that culture, and that’s a culture that needs to change in other prosecutors’ offices as well,” Gonzalez said.
David Muhammad, Executive Director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, said other cities like Boston, Chicago, Oakland and Richmond, Calif. have also tested new approaches to reducing violence that do not rely on mass incarceration.
“Incarceration in and of itself is ineffective, harmful and excessively expensive. It doesn’t work, it makes you worse and it costs too much,” Muhammad said. “And when we know that is true, and yet continue to use it, that is insanity.”
Adam Wisnieski is a Hartford, CT-based freelance reporter, and a contributing editor of The Crime Report. You can follow him on Twitter @adamthewiz. He welcomes comments from readers.