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A Collaboration between UNIS Human Rights Project & Proof: Media for Social Justice

Ending mass incarceration in the U.S. requires finding more effective ways of dealing with violence. In 2018, 56% of state prisoners were serving sentences for violent offenses. While violent crime in the United States has been decreasing steadily since the 1990s, gun violence spiked in urban areas in 2020. In the first three weeks of June 2020, there were 125 shootings in New York City, the most in nearly 25 years. The New York Times reported that the murder rate in 25 large American cities was up 16 percent. These numbers are likely influenced by exceptional circumstances related to Covid-19, but they are a reminder that real efforts for decarceration must address violent as well as nonviolent crime. 

“We cannot incarcerate our way out of violence,” writes Danielle Sered, who leads a program in New York City to advance solutions to violence that are alternatives to prison. Research shows that prisons fail to transform those who have committed violence or protect those who have been harmed. Part of the failure lies in the fact that incarceration treats violence as a problem of individual pathology instead of as a problem of social context and history. Violence is driven by poverty, inequity, lack of opportunity, shame, isolation, and like a public health epidemic, violence itself drives violence. 

According to Sered,  “Mass incarceration also fails to solve the problem of violence because it is a response that treats violence as a matter of ‘good vs. evil.’ The reality is far more complicated. Nearly everyone who commits violence has also survived it, and few have gotten formal support to heal. Although people’s history of victimization in no way excuses the harm they cause, it does implicate our society for not having addressed their pain earlier. And just as people who commit violence are not exempt from victimization, many survivors of violence have complex lives, imperfect histories, and even criminal convictions.”

Her Common Justice project attempts to break the cycle of violence through restorative justice. Restorative justice aims at less punishment and more accountability. It asks: “Who was harmed? What are the needs and responsibilities of all affected? How do all affected parties together address needs and repair harm?” Restorative justice processes take many forms including conflict mediation, problem-solving circles, peer juries and community service. These methods deliver powerful results both within the U.S. criminal justice system and as alternatives to incarceration. The Common Justice project brings together people who have hurt as well as been harmed in a process that promotes healing and accountability. Thus far, fewer than 7% of participants have been terminated from the program for committing new crimes

Another program called Cure Violence treats violence as a public health issue, as opposed to simply a criminal justice issue, and has been effective in reducing it. Cure Violence treats violence like a contagious disease and aims to stop in the same manner as one would a public health crisis: by interrupting transmission of the disease, reducing the risk of those at highest risk, and changing community norms. Today the program is in operation in 15 cities across the U.S., including at 18 stites in NYC. Since the program began in the South Bronx, shootings are down 63% and gun injuries are down 37%. In 2015, Cure Violence began operating in Queensbridge public housing, known as some of the most violent public housing in New York City. After the program began, Queensbridge went over 365 days without a shooting.

Restorative Justice: Why Do We Need it?

Test your knowledge.

Chapter 15 — Question 01

In 2015, what percentage of state prisoners were serving sentences for violent offenses?

Correct! Wrong!

Only 54% of state prisoners are serving for violent offenses.

Chapter 15 — Question 01


Director of Common Justice

We know four core drivers of violence that merge from all of the literature about it: shame, isolation, exposure to violence and diminished economic opportunities and access. I would argue that four of the key things that incarceration produces are: shame, isolation, exposure to violence and diminished ability to meet one's economic need. We have developed an intervention that we know is characterized by precisely the things that drive violence. People often use high recidivism rates of people coming home from prison to justify long sentences. And in that way, our prison system is the only industry that gets to justify its expansion based on its own failure. If it was true that incarceration reduced violence, we would have the safest country, not only globally, but in the history of humankind.

Continue to

Chapter Sixteen

What can we do: Reforming the System