Here are some questions I hear all the time when I speak to people about abolition: “But what about the murderers/rapists/bad guys?” “Yeah, prisons are bad, but what’s the alternative?” Or “But who would we call instead of the police during an emergency?”
Abolitionist work starts by re-framing those questions. This work is deep, profound, and looks further than those initial hesitations. To feel some clarity about these, it helps to shift the assumptions in place that prompt people to ask them in the first place.
Violence is easy to fix our attention to. We are afraid of experiencing violence, or of our loved ones being harmed. That fear is valid, and in many cases based on past experiences with violence. We must seriously confront the consequences of that.
From an abolitionist perspective, accountability is a key component of working outside of the criminal justice system. You will not hear abolitionists saying that “anything goes”—but this is a common assumption many first jump to when they think about getting rid of prisons.
Part of the work of confronting violence is embracing responses that do not rely on further violence or oppression, as prisons and policing do now.
Danielle Sered is no stranger to violence. As a survivor of violence and the co-founder of Common Justice, a restorative justice practice based in Brooklyn, New York, she takes on clients facing prison time for violent crimes and offers an alternative accountability process for both the person who harmed and the person who survived that. Her book, Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair (The New Press: March 2019), is a deep dive into what that work looks like, and it illustrates how our investments into mass incarceration are not paying off to reduce the amount of violence experienced in the world.
By using incarceration as our “solution” to those common questions mentioned above, as we have done for hundreds of years, we do our communities a grave disservice. In this process of locking people away, we allow punishment, control and isolation to be our primary mode of conflict resolution, rather than taking a chance on true accountability.
What does accountability look like?
What would it look like for someone to actually face the person they harmed and offer a sincere apology? What would it look like if, instead of re-traumatizing a survivor of violence through a court process, we centered their needs and supported them in a process of healing? What would it look like if we responded to every form of violence, including the violence inflicted by incarceration and policing, and say that it is unacceptable?
For Sered and the work done at Common Justice, “Any response to violence should adhere to four core principles. Our responses should be survivor-centered, accountability-based, safety-driven, and racially equitable.”
These core principles drive any restorative justice process, while addressing the racial roots of how incarceration grew, essentially, out of white supremacy and colonialism. Those roots cannot be ignored or glossed over, considering that Indigenous and Black people are incarcerated at far higher rates than white people are, not to mention the violence that our undocumented brothers and sisters face simply for being here. Ignoring this reality, that incarceration and policing are born out of the legacy of racism, will never do anything to confront violence in our culture.
Further, by starting any process with centering on the needs of the survivor, it also creates the opportunity for healing and growth. In our current justice system, as Sered and her research illustrates, “If prison worked, survivors would feel better as a result of the incarceration of the person who hurt them: and yet so many survivors do not.” What most survivors want is to live in safer places, not just to be safe from one person. Most survivors want resources to meet their economic needs after an incident occurs. Each survivor’s needs and wants vary, but what most of them all share in common is that they wish for others to be safer, happier, and to not have to go through the same thing that they went through.
My copy of Sered’s book is full of highlights, notes, and pages that are dog-eared; it’s a book I will return to as a resource again and again. If you look at the conditions that created a rise in mass incarceration and the consequences of that, it’s hard not to want something more comprehensive, and frankly, more practical. Sered paints this picture clearly:
The factors that drive violence and fundamentally characterize prison are all mutually reinforcing. Exposure to violence drives isolation, isolation drives shame, shame drives poverty, poverty drives exposure to violence, and so on. Far from being rehabilitative, prison all but guarantees the durability and continuation of cycles of violence, and in many cases increases the likelihood of further harm rather than reducing it.
Processes like restorative justice are gaining traction, but right now they are considered “alternatives” to incarceration only after someone has been targeted and charged by police in the first place. An accountability process is not available to all, and for people who do not wish to engage in the criminal justice system, they are even harder to come across.
Instead of thinking about single alternatives to jail and prison, we should be cultivating a variety of healing processes that do not rely on punishment as the solution in the first place. We all deserve to be able to hold someone accountable, as well as trust that our community will hold us accountable, in ways that maintain our dignity and humanity and keep our material needs intact. The people who are most equipped to deal with these issues are the people who have healed from their own traumas and come from the communities themselves. This should look less like outside experts coming in to tell people how to act, and more like communities coming together to decide how to support each other through that growth and change.
Our moment of reckoning is upon us. We are long past due for it, in fact. We should stop investing our efforts and money into systems that operate on violence. There are no more excuses. This process of growth will require facing many unknowns and will not be easy, but it does not make that any less important. Just like how our body grows or heals from wounds and the associated pains that come with that, our culture needs to grow, and there will be many moments of pain. We must do this work anyway, especially if we are serious about reducing harm and creating more equitable and just societies.
This work starts in our culture and with the self. It looks like realigning power back to marginalized communities. It means that we are saying that we do not accept violence. Once the threat of violence is removed, we can begin healing and transforming for the benefit of all.