Danielle Sered knows what it looks like for a person to be accountable for the harm they caused. She's spent more than a decade facilitating restorative justice solutions to violent crimes through her organization, Common Justice (plus she identifies as a crime survivor herself).
In this episode, Danielle explains why accountability is so important to a restorative justice approach, where it is often missing from our criminal legal processes, and how it is rooted in human dignity.
Her insights invite people of faith to discern where accountability can play a deeper role in our own lives — in our relationships with God and neighbor alike.
Hi there, and thanks for joining us for Encounters With Dignity, a podcast on restorative justice from Catholic Mobilizing Network. On this show, we bring you the stories, learnings, and actionable wisdom from people who are putting restorative justice into practice nationwide.
I’m Caitlin Morneau, Director of Restorative Justice at Catholic Mobilizing Network. In this episode, you’ll get to hear from Danielle Sered, the founder and director of Common Justice, a restorative justice program based in New York City. Danielle will outline for us some of the core principles that drive Common Justice’s work, and in doing so, she’ll teach us all a little bit about what accountability with dignity really looks like.
Restorative justice is based on the understanding that crime — and really harm in all its forms — violates relationships and human dignity. Logically, then, our responses to crime should aim to heal these broken relationships and dignity, so that everyone who was impacted is ultimately able to move forward in a good way. The way to do this is by focusing on what crime victims and survivors need (as well as the needs of the harm-doers and the community).
When impacted by crime, a person’s faith community may be one of the first places they turn to for support. Because of this, people of faith can be instrumental in
supporting victim-survivors through restorative processes that meet these unique needs. This kind of accompaniment can happen in collaboration with agencies and facilitators skilled in navigating violent and complex harms. Today’s speaker joins us from such an organization.
Danielle Sered envisioned, launched, and now directs Common Justice. She leads the project’s efforts to develop practical and groundbreaking solutions to violence that advance racial equity, meet the needs of those harmed, and do not rely on incarceration. She is the author of several books including Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair. Her work and leadership is rooted in a core obligation to securing the safety of those who have been harmed.ght us through during CMN’s:
Take a moment, and think about a time that you felt safe, however brief or momentary. Where were you? Who were you with? How did it smell or sound? How did you feel? Name that place for yourself and hold it with you as you listen.
At the core of our practice in Common Justice, we run an alternative to incarceration for serious and violent crimes like stabbings, shootings, gunpoint robberies where, with the consent of the district attorney and the victims of those crimes, the people responsible for that harm go through an intensive violence intervention program over about a year and a half. Part way through, they sit with those they've harmed, where they acknowledge the impact, and reach agreements about how to make things as right as possible. If they complete those agreements and complete the program, they don't go to prison. And the felony charges against them are dismissed. And, in the meantime, we work with the people whom they hurt to help them come through what happened to them and in their lives, generally.
Our work is, fundamentally, about figuring out a road to ending violence in our nation that has for so long been defined by it. We believe that four pillars should guide all of our responses to violence. The first is that we believe responses to violence should be survivor-centered. This sounds obvious. We talk as though we are survivor-centered, we name laws in survivors' names, we talk about survivors on the news. But the thing we rarely do is to actually listen to crime survivors.
We only take cases into Common Justice, if the victims of those crimes agree. It's important to note that fewer than half of victims call the police in the first place, fewer than half. So, that means any pretense that we are a victim-centered criminal justice system is baseless, like we're starting at 50%. When I was in school, that was an F. And then, we go down from there. Of those half who call, another half won't make it past grand jury, the sort of first stage in that mechanical process the courts offer. And so, that remaining 25% are, arguably, the subset of victims you'll find. They are the people who are pursuing a process likely to result in the incarceration of those who hurt them.
And those are the people we ask, "Do you want Common Justice? Or do you want to see the person incarcerated?" And 90% choose Common Justice. 90%, it's a wild number. When I first started seeing that number more than a decade ago in our work, I thought that we humans were better than I knew. That we were more forgiving, that we were more merciful. That we thought, but for the grace of God go I. I think that was true in some of the cases, but I think something else was happening in most of them. And it was something I should have known as a survivor myself.
So, as a survivor, I know that survivors will feel loss so profound that we would like to wring out our bones to rid it from the marrow there. We feel fear so intrusive and all consuming that in the safety of our own homes, in the arms of the people we trust and love most we will be unable to sleep. And when exhaustion finally takes us, we will wake from that sleep with nightmares. We feel rage so intense that it makes us unrecognizable, not just to those who love us, but even to ourselves.
But, at the end of the day, there is something that characterizes almost all of us, which is that we are pragmatic. At the end of the day, there are two things that survivors can't abide. We cannot abide the idea of going through it again. And we cannot abide the idea of someone else going through what we went through, which means when we are faced with options, we will choose the option that we believe will prevent that thing that we cannot stand.
And so, our survivors, when they choose us, sometimes choose out of mercy, sometimes choose out of forgiveness. But almost always choose out of pragmatism. I think about one mother we worked with early in the program whose 14-year-old son was seriously hurt. And we were talking about whether the young man who hurt him would be incarcerated, or in Common Justice. He was facing three years at the time, it had been negotiated down from 15. And the mother said to me, "When this first happened, first, I wanted him to drown to death. And then, I wanted him to burn to death. And then, I realized, as a mother, I don't want either of those things. I want him to drown in a river of fire, so I don't have to choose."
And she said, "But three years from now, my nine-year-old son will be 12, and he'll be going to and from the corner store, and to and from his aunt's house, and to and from school alone. And one day he will walk by that young man. And on that day, I have to answer, do I want that young man to have been upstate, or do I want him to have been with y'all?" And she said, "Now, the truth is, if he were before me today and I had my machete, I would chop him to bits and bury him under my house, and feel safe for the first time, since he dare lay his hand on my baby. But the truth is I would rather him be with you all."
Now, I don't know that it is a mother's obligation to prioritize the public safety over her rage and pain on behalf of her child. As the mother of an 18-month-old, now, I cannot imagine laying down that rage, cannot imagine laying it down. I do think it is our responsibility as a society to do that, though. It is our responsibility to choose the thing that works. To choose the thing that delivers safety and justice, not only the thing that satisfies some part of us that aches for revenge.
I also know that I believe it is our obligation, as a society, to do the things that will deliver healing. And what we know is that incarceration of someone who has caused harm doesn't ever do it. It's as though our criminal justice system... the best way I've been able to say it is that if somebody burned down your house. All the criminal justice system can do is burn down their house in your name. What we want, as survivors, is somewhere to live. And we believe solutions to violence should provide just that.
The second pillar that guides our work is that we believe solutions to violence should be accountability based. This, also, sounds obvious. We talk about accountability all the time. But usually, in our nation, when we say accountability, we mean it as a synonym for punishment. Punishment is passive. Punishment is something somebody does to me. All I have to do to be punished is not escape it.
Accountability is different. Accountability requires that I acknowledge what I've done. That I acknowledged its impact. That I expressed genuine remorse. That I make things as right as possible, ideally in a way defined by those I have hurt. And that I engage in the extraordinary labor of becoming somebody who will not cause that harm ever again. Accountability is some of the hardest work any of us will ever do. It is rooted in our human dignity. It requires our human agency. It is why it is so difficult to do in prison, it's a place that both diminishes dignity and diminishes agency. But it is the thing that transforms us. It is the thing that turns us into somebody who will not cause that harm again.
And I think often about a young man early in our time in Common Justice who had been gang involved since he was eight years old. He had caused more harm than anyone should. He had survived more harm than anyone should. He had seen more harm than anyone should in a lifetime, let alone in his brief 19 years before we met him. And he sat one day in the circle with the young man he hurt, and with that young man's mother, and faced the pain that he had caused them. And sat through the process of reckoning with it, of reaching agreements of how to repair it. The circle went for hours and hours. And when it was finally gone and everyone was going home, he asked me if he could sit in my office for a while before he left. It was late at night, and so I said, "May I ask why?" And he said, "Well, I just don't want to go outside until my hands stop shaking."
And he said, "Can I ask you, for all the harm I've done, for everything I've been through, I don't know if I've ever heard a real apology before. Do you think I did all right?" And, because it was true, I said, "Yes, I think you did great." And he said, "Pardon my language, but that's the scariest shit I've ever done." And he knew there was something in the human process of facing the hurt he had caused. Of facing those impacted by his actions that was harder than any of the violence he sustained, any of the times he had been locked up for brief and fairly long times, any of the times he himself had looked down the barrel of a gun. But looking into the mirror, looking into the eyes of those we have hurt is one of the most demanding things that can be asked of us as human beings. And accountability asks that of us in ways prison never will.
The third principle that we believe should guide our responses to violence is that we think responses to violence should be safety-driven. This seems obvious. You would think we'd want responses to violence to reduce violence, but it's not what we do. And so, as people in the business of ending violence at Common Justice, we know that the core drivers of violence are structural. The drivers of violence are inequity. They are lack of access to schools, lack of access to medical care, lack of access to safe housing, all of those things.
But, on an individual level, the core drivers of violence are shame, isolation, exposure to violence, and an inability to meet one's economic needs. The core features of prison are shame, isolation, exposure to violence, and an inability to meet one's economic needs. This means we have baked into our core responses to violence precisely the things that generate it. It's like showing up at a house fire with a tank full of gasoline. We cannot act surprised when the flames rise higher.
The thing that we know is that the way we produce safety is by counteracting those drivers of violence. And we know that safety is produced in relationship. It is when we are with those we love, when we are rooted in our faith, when we are rooted in our values, in our truth, in our relationships, in our connection, in our place. Then why, when we talk about public safety, are the first things we think about police and prisons? The best reasons we have for not hurting others are not because we would get caught, but because of our own conscience, because of the things in our lives we would not want to lose, because of the people we love, who help keep us clear and focused. It is those things in the social fabric and the fabric of our lives that keep us safe. And it is that fabric that prison rips that, so decisively every single time as something that, even at its least brutal, is fundamentally made of isolation.
The last thing we believe should characterize our responses to violence are that they should be racially equitable. Our responses to violence in this country never have been. Never. And so when we say this, we are not talking about a tweak to a system. We are talking about building a nation who regards its responsibility of protecting the Black and Brown people who live here and who, as we heard earlier, have lived here far longer than any of us, white folks, a nation that takes their protection and safety, as seriously as it takes the protection and safety of white people here.
The criminal justice system is rife with racial disparities. At every decision point, you see them amplify. At arrest, at arraignment, what plea deals are offered, what sentences are given, when someone is granted parole, every single point we see those amplify. And that same thing holds true for crime survivors who are, if they're Black and Brown people are likelier to be asked followup questions about their stories, to be blamed for the harm they sustained, to be distrusted as credible messengers of their own experience.
And unless we get at that root of the criminal justice system, unless we understand that it is the grandchild of genocide and slavery, and that we have to reckon with the reality that we have continued to nourish that continuity through various means the most recent of which is the system, we will never fundamentally change it.
I believe we owe something for the harm that system has caused. For the children it has ripped from their parents. For the people who have suffered violence, and sexual violence, and degradation, and separation, and starvation, and despair. And all of these things because we have chosen to do that. As a country, we have chosen it and we have caused thousands... millions, and millions of people extraordinary harm as a result. I believe that when we cause harm, we owe repair. And I don't actually believe the steps are very different than those we described above for individual acts of harm. I believe we have to acknowledge what we have done. I believe we have to acknowledge its impact. I believe we have to express genuine remorse. I believe we have to make things as right as possible, ideally, in a way defined by those we've harmed. And I believe we have to become a nation that will never do this ever again.
A reckoning isn't an easy thing to choose. But there is something that we do know, every time we have a circle at Common Justice the responsible party is nervous. Doesn't usually want to come. The train seems to always be delayed on a circle day. They make up excuses. They are late. They are trembling. They are afraid. They drag themselves into that room or we drag them lovingly. And every single time in those processes, every time, not only do people reach some clarity, not only do they reach agreements that they have done in 100% of Common Justice cases, even our attempted murders, even our shootings, 100%.
But, more than that, there is something that becomes possible on the other side of the truth that is not visible on this side of it. There is a way of being with each other. There is a way of seeing kind of past the horizon that was the closest one before to the next. There is a way of being in humanity with each other's humanity that not only wasn't available before we told the truth, but it wasn't even possible. And so I believe, as a nation, it is our time to tell the truth. I believe we have gotten as much change as we can get on this side of that stark and courageous honesty. I believe there is nothing left for us, but to walk through that wall of fire to the other side. And that the world we stand to become on the other side is the one that we actually all deserve.
What felt familiar as you listened to Danielle’s reflections? What was new or challenging? How did her sharing relate to Gospel values that you hold dear?
For me, listening to Danielle’s talk immediately called to mind the sacrament of reconciliation… The way she describes the importance of taking responsibility for harms done to others is so similar to what we, as Catholics, do in confession -- honestly acknowledging how we’ve fallen short and violated our relationship with God. As anyone who has gone to confession knows, the process can be intimidating, yes, but also freeing. Atoning for my failings in light of God’s merciful love, is a profound step toward repairing the breach.
And we know that love ought not be limited to our individual relationship with God. For scripture tells us there is no greater commandment than to “love God and our neighbor as ourselves.” So Catholic social teaching and our sacramental tradition invite us to extend this practice of confession, repair, and reconciliation to all of our relationships. What a powerful invitation to participate in the restoration of dignity.
In her book, Until We Reckon, Danielle puts it like this: “Accountability does for those who commit harm what the healing process does for us when we are harmed; it gives us a way to recuperate our sense of dignity, our self-worth, our connectedness, and our hope--the thing we lost when we caused harm.”
May this ethic of reconciliation rooted in authentic accountability breathe life into our efforts to transform lives impacted by crime and the criminal legal system as we know it.
If you enjoyed this episode of Encounters With Dignity, make sure to subscribe to our show from your favorite podcast platform, or by visiting catholicsmobilizing.org/encounters. For podcast updates and other news from Catholic Mobilizing Network, follow us on social media or sign up for our emails at catholicsmobilizing.org/join.
Join us next month when Native American Catholic leaders Maka Black Elk and Deacon Andy Orosco will discuss Truth and Reconciliation as an essential part of the process to heal historic and systematic injustices against native communities in the U.S.
To learn more about ways of supporting victims in the aftermath of crime, visit Catholic Mobilizing Network’s “Dos and Don'ts For Accompanying Victim-Survivors Through a Restorative Process” at catholicsmobilizing.org/victim-accompaniment.
Will you pray with me…
Ever merciful and loving God,
We have failed you and one another so many times.
We have justified violence and vengefulness in your name.
Give us the courage to face the truth of our own actions, and to hold merciful space for honest confession, that we may be accountable to one another in the labor of mutual healing and transformation.