Legislators and courts need to rethink the “fear” mentality that results in long prison terms for violent offenders, and consider more nuanced strategies that take account of the different factors that drive violence in America, leading victims’ advocates and community activists told a John Jay conference Wednesday.
Legislators and courts need to rethink the “fear” mentality that results in long prison terms for violent crimes, and consider more nuanced strategies that take account of the different factors that drive violence in America, leading victims’ advocates and community activists said Wednesday.
Danielle Sered, an expert on restorative justice who leads the Common Justice initiative in Brooklyn, N.Y., told a John Jay College conference that unless the number of those incarcerated for violent offenses was reduced, America would never make a dent in mass incarceration.
Many of those convicted of violent offenses could be handled with shorter prison terms or alternative non-punitive approaches similar to the reforms underway in many jurisdictions for handling people convicted of non-felony offenses, she told the Smart on Crime Innovations conference.
But efforts to rethink the traditional “tough on crime” strategy have been hampered by stereotypes about violent offenders—further aggravated by fear and racism, she added.
“We don’t build prisons (just) because we want to incarcerate people for doing crimes,” she said. “We build them based on stories of fear. They’re to protect us from the monstrous ‘other,’ which also goes to the heart of racism in our society.”
Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, observed that it was a mistake to assume that harsh prison terms satisfied those who survived violent crimes.
“Fundamentally, victims don’t want the violence to happen again,” she said, noting that they would welcome strategies that helped violent offenders emerge from prison with mindsets that ensured they would not repeat violent acts that threatened their communities.
“We need to create a criminal justice system that doesn’t lead to binary decisions—you go to jail, you don’t,” she said, advocating instead for an approach similar to how the medical community handled individuals with serious diseases.
Just as cancer patients are given a “treatment package” by their doctor, “we need to create similar (treatment packages) in criminal justice,” Fernandez said.
But there will be little progress in dealing with violence and its effects unless authorities addressed some of the root causes of violence and its impact on the nation’s poorest communities, said Erica Ford of LIFE Camp Inc., who works with New York’s Crisis Management System (CMS).
CMS, now operating in 23 sites across the city, works with both victims and offenders, intervening and mediating to apply Cure Violence principles, which treats violence as a public health epidemic and works to address poverty, housing discrimination and other factors that have acted as seedbeds for violence.
Arguing that the U.S. government has helped fuel a “society of fear…that profits from violence,” she said, “eradicating violence effectively means going after the face of oppression.”
Along similar lines, Sered, a former deputy director of the Vera Institute of Justice, developed a program that diverts young people who have committed serious assaults from the justice system and brings them together with their victims, in an effort to help offenders realize the harms they have committed and take responsibility for them.
She said over 90 percent of victims approached through her program chose to participate in such restorative justice encounters.
“It reflects pragmatism,” she said. “(Beyond) fear and rage, they want to be safe, and they want others to be safe.”
Sered noted that “the hardest people to be persuaded that incarceration works are those who live in neighborhoods where incarceration is common.”
Harsh jail terms for violent offenders do little to guarantee public safety, since offenders often come out of prison with the same problems and attitudes that got them in there to begin with, she said.
“We have built into our responses to violence exactly the things that drive (violence),” she said.
Ford added that the only useful long-term solution to America’s violence was to invest in the neighborhoods and communities where violence has become an epidemic.
Black and brown people live in a violent society aggravated by ineffective policing, poor housing and racial inequity, said Brown, who said that she had attended 25 funerals of victims of violence in her South Jamaica, Queens community before she was 25.
“An 18-year-old was killed three blocks from my home last night,” she said.
Stephen Handelman is executive editor of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.