Danielle Sered’s new book, “Until We Reckon,” is a must-read for anyone who works in the criminal courts, the many who care about making our streets and communities safer and all those who espouse concern for the simple concept of justice. The author writes as both a scholar (as in Rhodes) and doer, with her pioneering Common Justice program that creates an arena for bringing together the victims of violent crime with their assailants. She operates on the simple premise that the underpinnings believed to justify mandatory imprisonment for violent behavior are provably flawed. Broad-scale imprisonment has not made communities safer, nor given victims a lasting sense of security or, indeed, satisfaction.
Engrossingly written, Sered points out that treating violence solely as an individual’s pathology misses the mark, that that analysis importantly ignores the social context in which such crimes occur. Shame, lack of opportunity, poverty and simple inequity are most often the main drivers of this criminal violence. Indeed, broad policies that perpetuate substandard housing, inadequate education and devastation to entire families entirely innocent of wrongdoing are the fuel motoring our present “lock ‘em up” system. With each incarceration, a caregiver to spouse and parents is lost, and an income provider as well. The lives of the assailant’s children are invariably, and adversely, affected, with the periodic visit to daddy in prison-a tenuous connection at best.
And, of course, in society’s eyes, the wrongdoer can never pay for his (and it is statistically male) criminal act. However long the imprisonment, there remain severe limitations on any kind of post-prison employment, no less a living wage. Frequent restrictions on housing, little to show by way of continued education, or self-awareness other than augmentation to the streetwise knowledge acquired by spending years together with other imprisoned felons, are not the fodder to productive citizenry. Indeed, prison life all too often proves to be a continuation of the violence known on the defendant’s streets.
Strikingly, Sered provides data indicating that nearly everyone who commits violent crime has previously survived it, without ever having had access to the support required for a healthy recovery. That leads to her trenchant observation that it is purportedly for the survivors of assaults in whose name we practice this unyielding approach to incarceration.
Her work with victims uniformly identifies the cry that those assaulted want to be heard. And yet studies show that half of this damaged population elect not to follow up with the police. They want to understand why they were attacked. Most significantly they want assurance that what happened to them will not happen to anyone else. And, of course, they want a sense that now they will be personally secure.
What happens, in fact, offers these survivors little relief. Since most arrests result in plea bargains, the victims are not heard. Those few cases that go to trial place the victim in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable forum, limited by rules that constrict the full expression of her/his feelings and experience.
While incarceration provides short-term relief for some, it is a given that the victim knows that one day her/his assailant will most likely be back in the same community where the crime took place, and in which the victim lives. Given the lack of information provided to those harmed once a complaint is signed or testimony given in a grand jury, the victim will spend the next years fearing that there will be another confrontation with the assailant.
And, of course, the victim will never hear from the aggressor why he did what he did. Of at least equal significance, the assailant will never confront the human being whom he so violated, an interaction that is essential for him to pursue necessary behavioral adjustments.
Most every victim experiences profound, instant anger, and instinctively want to punish. But for what duration? Sered writes of Annie, who was brutally robbed and assaulted by a young man, of an age approximating that of her teenage son. “Ms. Annie, with all respect, may I [Sered] ask, when that man who assaulted you was sentenced to that long prison term, were you relieved? [And she answered] Oh yes, honey of course I was. [ And I asked:] Can I ask how long that relief lasted? And she said: Oh, baby, at least three or four hours.”
“And then I took the bus home, she said, and I was still afraid.” Annie describes her not sleeping, and the accompanying nightmares, and then, the “next morning I could not shake the image of that boy’s mother face in court when those guards took her baby from her for good. Because that is my face.”
With the pathbreaking cooperation of the late Charles J. Hynes, then Brooklyn district attorney, Sered has continued her project with the assistance of Hynes’ enlightened successors, the late Ken Thompson and incumbent Eric Gonzalez. With painstaking care, and on a completely voluntary basis, Sered and her group bring together the victims of violent crime with their assailants. Replacing the tough guy jargon of the D.A. did this, or the Judge did that, these men are confronted directly with the devastation their actions have caused to another, and to acknowledge this reality, directly, to the victim.
Step by step, these conversations evolve to the penalty phase, in which the victim plays a major role in formulating a sanction. It is often multi-faceted, including such diverse mandates as pursuit of a GED, the assailant educating the victim in martial arts, community service at a family’s church, trauma-focused therapy, public speaking, keeping a daily journal reflecting on her victim’s fear of re-entering a subway as a result of the underlying assault on a subway, with the assailant simultaneously barred from using the subway.
How much more constructive these evolvements are than the one-size fits all diktat embedded in the mandatory minimum sentence legislation, statutes which deprive judges, who possess at least a limited familiarity with a defendant, from applying more appropriate individualized sanctions.
The results are not surprising. The victim is heard, the assailant is forced to account for his serious criminal acts, and the devastating impact of imprisonment and a lifelong felony record is avoided. Significantly, but not surprisingly, the early data shows a dramatically reduced rate of recidivism and a dramatically increased rate of productive citizenry.
And this is just the first part. Sered writes that of the fraction of violent crimes reported to the police, only one-half result in arrests. Given what victims know about the criminal justice system, they would rather say nothing than submit themselves to it. Race, poverty, inadequate health and educational assistance profoundly contribute to the culture of violence so excessive in this country.
The victims do not report crime because of their lived experiences which inhibit the necessary trust required. Further, even if that trust were miraculously to appear, the codified mandate that we must imprison will simply lead to more violence. Sered makes a compelling case for the broader need to address the devastating impact, that we have left largely untouched, of institutionalized racial prejudice.
She writes of that bias woven through the long known, and now proven unfairness of stop and frisk practices, or the still extensive deprivation of equal access to equivalent housing, education and healthcare to entire communities substantially populated by men and women of color. It is essential, she concludes, that we recognize and address these institutionalized disparities.
Eric Seiff is of counsel to Storch Amini.