Beginning in Brooklyn and the Bronx, Common Justice runs the country’s first alternative-to-incarceration and victim-service program that focuses on violent felonies in the adult courts. This is a rigorous, cutting-edge response to serious felonies rooted in the principles of restorative justice. If the survivors of those crimes consent, Common Justice works with city prosecutors to divert the cases into a process designed to recognize the harm done, honor the needs and interests of those harmed, and develop appropriate responses to hold the responsible party accountable.
For the first three months, people in the diversion program come to Common Justice every day for an intensive violence intervention curriculum. None of these individuals invented violence; rather, most have experienced violence themselves. And for most the violence they experienced was met with great disregard. A starting point for many then involves acknowledging that, “what happened to me was wrong, and therefore what I did was wrong.” This expert-led and professionally supervised violence intervention curriculum is paired with 20 hours a week of doing meaningful work in community.
After extensive preparation, responsible parties sit with those they have harmed (or surrogates who take their place), people who support both parties, and a trained facilitator in a restorative justice “circle.” This circle provides those affected by crimes with the power and opportunity to address questions, needs and obligations in order to heal and foster accountability. Over the course of several meetings, the circle participants reach agreements about what the responsible party can do to make things as right as possible — and ultimately, to repair harm and reduce future harm.
For the next year, the responsible party (whom others may refer to as the “perpetrator,” a stigmatic label that Danielle avoids) fulfills those commitments while continuing with the violence intervention curriculum. During this time the goal is to help shift motivations from extrinsic to intrinsic, so that responsible parties become less motivated by just the external threat of punishment, and more so by an intrinsic moral code, a sense of responsibility to those harmed by their actions; “a love for their own long, free lives”; and a sense of agency in being able to live the life they now know is possible. If the responsible party fulfills all the commitments, shows up consistently, and participates fully in the program, then the prosecutor keeps their commitment to vacate the felony charges and the responsible parties are sentenced to an underlying misdemeanor with no further punishment.
The 15-month curriculum is extraordinarily rigorous; as Danielle’s points out, “if we fail, people serve long sentences or others can be seriously hurt.” Thankfully, they rarely fail. Since Common Justice’s inception, fewer than 8% of people have been terminated from the program for a new crime. Of those who completed the Common Justice intervention, 79% graduated successfully and 100% of “circles” have resulted in agreements.
Danielle’s explanation of their striking success is that accountability is fundamentally dignifying. The process brings responsible parties face-to-face with the impact they have caused and requires them to sit with people whose lives they’ve changed because of choices they’ve made. Because people are presented with a pathway to make amends and recoup their dignity, deeper hurts and traumas are mended and graduates of the program are less likely to cause harm again.
Survivors of violence also benefit, and clearly play a huge role in this process. This is relatively unheard of. Across the landscape of criminal justice innovation and reform, survivors are rarely asked to articulate what justice looks like for them. When asked, however, it turns out most do not choose incarceration. Why? Crime survivors are pragmatic. Using language that hints at her passion for poetry, Danielle reflects on her own experience as a survivor of violence by sharing, “we rage and feel loss so deep we want to wring out our bones to get rid of it; we feel afraid in our safest places and even in arms of those we love most; we feel rage that makes us unrecognizable to ourselves. But still we are pragmatic, and when given a choice, we opt for something that keeps us more safe. We simply can’t bear to go through it again and we can’t bear the thought of anyone else going through it.”
Survivors of violence understand better than most that incarceration does not work. Survivors of violence live in the same neighborhoods and tend to be at the same life stages and of the socio-economic backgrounds as those who harm them. They’ve seen how mass incarceration has failed their communities and, over time, made their neighborhoods less safe; they see that when people return from jail or prison, nothing about their time away has made them less violent nor prevents future harm. To date, 90 percent of survivors approached have chosen Common Justice.
While just under 100 individuals have been diverted through the Common Justice program to date, it is a strategy inherently designed for scale because it secures the buy-in from the District Attorney’s (or DA) offices. Prosecutors alone could end mass incarceration tomorrow without any changes in law, simply by changing their own practices around offers, bail, and charges, but without viable alternatives and/or public pressure, the status quo prevails. As Danielle has seen firsthand, “the system can act mercifully whenever it chooses to. Some things in the criminal justice system require changes to the law, but almost anything can be accomplished through changes in how system actors exercise discretion.” By creating a viable and increasingly popular model that works, Danielle applies pressure on prosecutors to divert folks from incarceration.
This is one area where Danielle’s work stands to bolster wider systems change underway in the reform movement. More than 80 percent of prosecutor elections in the U.S. go uncontested. But criminal justice reform is moving into the terrain of representative democracy. Not only are people who were previously supportive of “hard incarceration” coming around, but more people are engaging in the democratic process around this issue, with winning candidates – as in the last prosecutor race in Brooklyn – increasingly committing to practical actions (like Common Justice) to reduce mass incarceration. Common Justice has also trained more than 600 attorneys in DA’s offices through continuing legal education classes.
As demand for the work grows, Danielle and her colleagues (now totaling 24 and growing with an annual operating budget of $4M) are also mobilizing to build up the national efforts of local teams that can deploy the Common Justice model, or something similar, including exploring training of others around the country. To date they’ve had major national events in 35 U.S. cities.
These events - as well as media work and Danielle’s 2019 book, Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair – are strategic efforts to advance narrative and larger culture shift. The book, for example, tees up the Ever After storytelling campaign and online storytelling platform, produced by Common Justice’s Director of Communications, which is focused on shifting the way we talk about violence and solutions to violence in America. People connect with stories at a deep level, and these stories about what people want when they are hurt and what accountability looks like not only help us connect with survivors of violence, but rethink our response to violence in general.
Danielle does not believe that Common Justice alone will displace mass incarceration. Rather, she views the model and its success as a catalyst to break hard, dry land so that other efforts and innovations might take root in more supple, accessible soil. According to Danielle, “until this mindset shift happens, it will be hard to generate enough demand for the kind of restorative justice work we are doing — they go hand-in-hand.” The good news is that people – survivors of violence included – really want this shift. “We’re not really changing what is true but rather revealing what is already true.”