It’s only mid-June and Charlotte has eclipsed it murder rate for all of 2018. There are many contributing factors, but the inescapable truth is nearly every person who commits violence has first survived it and their most likely victim is someone they know. Which makes our go-to choice of caging people when they commit a violent crime strange.
Actually, our system of justice rarely offers real choice when you’re a survivor of violent crime. It’s either incarceration or nothing at all. And yet, as Danielle Sered reveals in her prescient book, “Until We Reckon,” our communities must address violence honestly, with a focus on survivors, or our nation will never break its addiction to caging human beings.
Violence in America can’t be blamed on complacency by law enforcement. In my lifetime, politicians have flailed about with wars on drugs, three-strikes-you’re out, mandatory minimum sentencing, militarized police and 24/7 surveillance of our poorest communities, while building more prisons than at any other time in history. Yet few seem concerned with how best to achieve justice while having a meaningful impact on violence in our society.
What our system of mass incarceration has given birth to is sobering: More than 2 million people are locked in prisons and jails in this country, on top of the 4.5 million being controlled by probation or parole. A staggering 70 million Americans have criminal records that all but legalize discrimination, relegating them to permanent third-class status. Yet, because most caught in this system have been convicted of nonviolent crimes and drug offenses, it’s logically where reform should start.
As for violent crimes, reform has proven taboo, both because some people need to be separated from society to keep others safe and because there’s a presumption that survivors are only interested in revenge or punishment. In instances where that’s not the case, what usually appears on the menu for survivors and perpetrators is police, prosecutors and prisons.
A movement commonly known as “restorative justice” seeks to give survivors of violence options. Several groups already are doing this work throughout North Carolina. Assisted by trained facilitators, legal counsel and judges, these programs offer an accountability process for survivors, many of whom have been shot, stabbed or robbed. They have the option to decide if they would prefer to get answers from the person who harmed them, rather than send them to prison. They receive comprehensive victim services and help decide how perpetrators of violence can repair the damage they’ve done, by assisting in creating an accountability plan.
A growing body of data strongly suggests that restorative justice programs increase the odds of safety, reduce recidivism and alleviate trauma. “Until We Reckon” cites studies showing survivors report 80 to 90 percent rates of satisfaction with restorative processes, compared to 30 percent for traditional plea bargains or trials.
It’s time to stop pretending that caging people on a massive scale helps survivors heal or makes our communities safer. Our system of mass incarceration fails to take accountability seriously because it lets violent criminals off the hook. They aren’t obligated to answer victims’ questions, listen to them, express genuine remorse, or do whatever they can to repair what’s broken. They’re also not required to address their own trauma, so they’re less likely to do harm in the future.
Prison deprives everyone healing and reconciliation, and it does nothing to break cycles of violence. The only thing prison requires is that people stay in their cages. Charlotteans deserve a choice.