Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
As a country the United States deals with violence through policing and punishment, typically in the form of incarceration. We do this even though policing has an unbroken history of perpetuating and enforcing racial inequity and generating harm ranging from fatal violence to a generalized environment of hostility, enmity, and fear. We do this despite policing’s myopic and debilitating focus on individual wrongdoing devoid from its structural and historical context. We do this even though incarceration has been demonstrated to have criminogenic effects—meaning it can make people likelier, rather than less likely, to commit further harm. This should not be surprising given the ways incarceration exacerbates both structural causes of violence such as neighborhood-level inequity, as well as individual drivers such as shame, isolation, exposure to violence, and economic disenfranchisement. But policing and prisons have never delivered safety—particularly not for Black people and people of color—and they never will. We have invested trillions of public dollars over decades in “solutions” that have hurt many but not offered relief.
It is this elemental failure of the criminal punishment system that the organizers of the “defund the police” movement have long known. Their analysis and clarion call for change rose to the top of the national airwaves in the months following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. In the year since, many people have continued to debate the semantics and political palatability of “defund the police,” too often at the expense of answering the real question the movement poses: what will keep people safe? And will we, as a country, choose to invest our resources accordingly? The increase in lethal violence over the past year makes these questions even more urgent. And police are still not the answer.
When we discuss violence, we must uproot a wide range of myths: the myth that people who are responsible for violence are not also survivors of violence, the myth that prisons reliably produce safety, the myth that individual evil, rather than structural factors, is the primary driver of violence, and more. But perhaps the myth that we must uproot most urgently—if we are to uproot the others and end harm in our communities—is the story that we do not know what to do. In cities and towns across the country, people have produced safety in ways the criminal punishment system has not and cannot. These are solutions people have long needed and deployed, and the moral question of our moment is whether we will invest in them as though every single child’s survival is our shared business.
Right now people are intervening to prevent violence, interrupt it, hold people accountable for it, and help people heal. Some of their solutions are housed at non-profits, while others are more informal. Neighbors rush to crime scenes as soon as—if not before––the police arrive, to help minimize retaliatory violence and support people in the early crushing moments of grief. Elders hold circle processes in their homes to address harms that police, courts, and prisons cannot or will not. Healers provide remedy and power to survivors when neither could be found in the courts. These neighbors—or “solutionaries,” to borrow a phrase from activist and author Grace Lee Boggs—are everywhere. They have always been. Communities—especially those of color historically subjected to violence and inequity—would not survive without these networks of safety.
The issue is not that no one knows what to do, it is that the criminal punishment system does not know what to do and it gets top reign over these cases. Yet it fails to produce the minimum levels of safety that everyone deserves. It reproduces violence. It rarely heals anyone.
Meanwhile, the responses that are effective are vastly under-resourced—in part because of the investments we have made in policing and incarceration. If we want to solve the urgent problem of violence, we must direct resources of all kinds—money, creativity, human capital, media stories, and more—toward real solutions. This can be done by resourcing those who already know what to do to enact their solutions at greater scale until the less effective and more brutal responses are rendered unnecessary.
This presents an opportunity not only to break with the myth that law enforcement serves the interests of public safety, but also with its associated entitlement to monopolize conversations about violence prevention and safety. Now we must seat others at the head of the public safety table—those who are producing and have long produced safety: community residents; healthcare workers; those most impacted by gun violence; educators; and people providing housing, community development, and economic development solutions in cities and towns across the country. We explore this work here—from public health interventions to restorative justice to economic solutions—so that we might learn to create safety, rather than doubling down on what has only wrought harm.
Public Health Approaches for Addressing Violence
Our country’s criminal court system is not designed or equipped to offer trauma-informed healing to survivors of violent crime––nor should it. Crime survivors are often low-income, young people of color, and they experience significant challenges in recovery and healing—80 percent of survivors report experiencing at least one symptom of trauma. Often the criminal court system treats them as suspects in their own trauma, making healing nearly impossible. Researchers and practitioners are increasingly aware of a fact that people who have experienced the criminal punishment system firsthand have long known: investigations, prosecutions, and court processes are hardwired to mete out punishment, not facilitate holistic, trauma-informed healing.
Fortunately, researchers, practitioners, and local leaders are moving away from individualized notions of violence and toward public health-based approaches to understand the structural causes of violence. These approaches focus on preventing injury or death by addressing underlying social determinants of health, centering the needs of people most impacted by violence, and providing support for navigating trauma. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, social determinants of health are “conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play that affect a wide range of health and quality-of-life risks and outcomes.” Examples include transportation options; employment and education opportunities; safe housing; and access to healthy food, air, and water. Of course, these conditions are shaped by the distribution of resources and power at local and national levels. Poor, majority Black communities and communities of color across the country have faced severe retractions in public investment in education, housing, and public transportation. However, these same communities have borne the brunt of state investment in criminalization, policing, and incarceration.
Since the early 1980s, medical and public health researchers have recognized violence as a public health crisis. It behaves like a chronic, recurrent, and preventable disease. A white paper, written by the National Network of Hospital-Based Violence Intervention Programs, provides a comprehensive overview of this framework. It holds that interpersonal violence is an epidemic that disproportionately harms young adults fifteen to thirty-four-years old—it is also the leading cause of death for young adults in that age range—and disproportionately affects Black and Latinx men and boys. Black men and boys aged fifteen to thirty-four, who make up just 2 percent of the U.S. population, comprised 38 percent of people who died from gunshot injuries in 2016.
Violent victimization is sometimes considered a “recurrent disease” because people who experience assaultive injuries are often reinjured. In cities it is estimated that up to 41 percent of patients treated for violent injury are reinjured within five years. Experiencing violence “also significantly increases the likelihood of engaging in violent behaviors against others, oftentimes as retaliation for the initial injury.” Violent injury also impacts mental health, with many individuals experiencing PTSD, depression, and substance use disorders afterward––which may add another layer to the PTSD they experience from living in environments that produce chronic stress. The fact that adequate mental health services are rare only exacerbates this. This epidemic of interpersonal violence results in premature death and disability among young people, leading to further community destabilization, poverty, incarceration, and violence.
To be clear, while public health frameworks for understanding interpersonal violence are useful, they are not free of racism. Often the disease-based model can justify the identification and removal of those deemed most “sick” or “contagious.” This framework has been used to isolate, coerce, and punish those most likely to experience violence, even as it has centered healing, trauma-informed care, community ties, material support, and dignity. We focus on the latter interventions here, acknowledging that the field of public health is deeply implicated in creating and upholding racist logics and systems.
Public health approaches to addressing violence include credible messenger and violence intervention programs to prevent violence. For example, Save Our Streets (S.O.S.) in New York City supports people who have experienced violence to use their credibility and relationships to mediate conflicts before they escalate to gun violence, and to respond immediately after individual shootings to help prevent further violence. Hundreds of violence prevention organizations are doing a version of this work in neighborhoods across the country, including Communities Partnering 4 Peace in Chicago, Advance Peace in Richmond, the Jersey City Anti-Violence Coalition Movement, Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, and others. Many of these programs include economic stability––helping to meet people’s basic needs––as a key component of violence intervention.
In the mid-1990s community organizations in Oakland and Milwaukee teamed up with hospital staff to create the first hospital-based violence intervention programs, which applied the credible messenger model in a new, high impact setting. The theory goes that hospitals are on the frontlines of a public health crisis of violence; when they only treat acute physical injuries (providing surgery after gunshot wounds, for example), people are still likely to be reinjured due to PTSD and underlying social determinants of health.
Medical teams too often treat violence as our criminal punishment system does, viewing harm as the result of loathsome individual behavior. But with the advent of hospital-based violence intervention programs, of which there are now more than thirty-five across the United States (many part of a network called Health Alliance for Violence Intervention (HAVI)), hospital staff and their community partners can do more than sew someone up and send them home knowing that they will likely return to the hospital, harm someone else, or end up in prison or the cemetery after another incident.
One hospital-based violence intervention program is Detroit Life is Valuable Everyday (DLIVE) at Detroit Medical Center-Sinai Grace Hospital. The DLIVE team connects with young patients and initiates a therapeutic relationship, engaging in a healing transformative journey. They provide a range of trauma-informed supports, including integrated mental health therapy, transportation, housing, employment opportunities, and other critical social determinants of health. This might involve providing resources directly to patients (for example, transportation and mental health support), or facilitating support via partnerships with like-minded community partners (for example, legal advocacy and community lawyering). Programs like DLIVE exemplify a structural approach to understanding violence and are guided by the question: What supports are needed to ensure that this does not happen again, and that young people can be healthy? In the absence of trauma-informed healing supports for violence survivors, DLIVE has created a model for holistic care and healing.
Since 2018 DLIVE and the Detroit Justice Center (DJC) have joined forces to provide support to young people who have sustained acute violent trauma such as gunshot wounds. In June 2018 the two programs formed a medical-legal partnership to assist DLIVE members with suspended licenses, outstanding warrants, tickets and fines, criminal records, and more. They have already provided holistic support to more than twenty-five clients, facilitating pathways to success and prosperity. They also help their clients—mostly Black men in their twenties and thirties—avoid reinjury, resolve court obligations, find employment, and reconnect with their children.
Studies of hospital-based violence intervention programs (HVIP) show they succeed in preventing reinjury, violent harm, and criminal legal system involvement, and also decrease PTSD symptoms. Five randomized control trials have studied the link between participating in a HVIP and future risk of reinjury, with encouraging results. In a trial in Baltimore, for example, there was a 36 percent difference in re-hospitalization in the control group compared to 5 percent in the group that participated in the HVIP.
The takeaway is clear: if we want to interrupt cycles of violence, we need to invest in programs that center credible messengers and promote public health and safety. More broadly, we need to invest our resources in improving social determinants of health that impact community levels of violence and safety. Fortunately, organizers are creating pathways for doing just that.
Addressing Inequity and Meeting People’s Needs for Economic Wellbeing
When community members who experience the brunt of violence, policing, and incarceration are asked how they would create safe, healthy, livable neighborhoods, their answers are remarkably consistent—and they align with the social determinants of health discussed above. As the Durham Beyond Policing Coalition found: “When we surveyed Durham residents in 2016 and 2017 about how they would spend the $71M allocated to build the new DPD headquarters to keep their communities safe, they said they wanted affordable housing, healthcare access, good jobs, and better public transportation. They wanted to address structural problems.” People want to address the underlying structural factors that Durham organizers call “criminally unlivable contexts.”
Similarly, when the Detroit Justice Center asked Detroit teenagers how they would spend the $533 million being spent on a new jail complex in the city in 2018, not one said that the city needed more police or jails. Instead, they asked for mental health support, restorative justice mediation centers, public transit, affordable and accessible public housing, investments in quality schools, and well-paid teachers.
In a 2015 study led by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, over twenty organizations across fourteen states surveyed 1,080 people who had been incarcerated or who were relatives of people who had been. Two-thirds of families in the study had difficulty meeting their basic needs due to a loved one’s incarceration. When asked how they would like to see the United States reinvest the $80 billion that we spend on “corrections” each year, respondents prioritized education; job training, creation, and placement; and affordable housing. People know what drives destabilization, lack of safety, and violence, and they know the resources that will promote safety and wellbeing.
Research in urban planning, design, and community development demonstrates that economic development and land use affect violence. A research report by the Prevention Institute outlines how decisions about the use of resources, particularly the use of land, drive community safety and determine risk and wellbeing. Risk factors that contribute to high levels of interpersonal violence include neighborhood poverty, lack of economic opportunities, high alcohol outlet density, residential segregation, lack of public transportation, and high rates of prison re-entry without adequate support. This latter factor reveals how greater investment in the criminal punishment system works against the development of community infrastructure to prevent and respond to violence.
Employment and economic opportunities, parks and recreation facilities that allow people to socialize and build strong networks, quality schools, and accessible opportunities for cultural and artistic expression (“accessible” meaning that community centers can be used by all people, are well-maintained and well-lit, offer quality programming, and are open after school and on weekends) prevent community violence. However, communities that experience high levels of violence do not simply lack these resources; they also have been subjected to deep investments in institutions that make communities unsafe. Jails produce poverty, job loss, evictions, lack of housing, neighborhood instability, violence, trauma, debility, and death—they make communities less safe and healthy. Where incarceration rates are high, community social and economic wellbeing decline. Meanwhile, the misery associated with incarceration costs the United States over $1.2 trillion each year, factoring in the associated impacts of foster care, housing, and costs to families.
Several prevention programs have initiated coordinated strategies to reduce incidents of violence. The Chicago Heartland Alliance’s Rapid Employment and Development Initiative (READI) program connects men impacted by gun violence to support systems aimed at reducing gun violence in the city. The one-year program includes cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), paid transitional jobs, and wrap-around support services. The program’s Housing for Justice pilot recognizes the importance of safe, stable housing and helps participants locate it. They provide rental subsidies, offer ongoing landlord mediation, and support participants to increase their economic opportunity.
Advance Peace in Richmond is another violence interruption program that emphasizes improving the health and economic wellbeing of individuals involved in gun violence. Like other interruption programs, it connects people (mostly Black men between fourteen to twenty-seven) with mentorships, internships, job trainings, and support services. Moreover, it sends outreach teams to intervene in conflicts. Participants receive a stipend to help meet economic needs and travel together around the world. Unlike other programs (like Ceasefire, a focused deterrence strategy), the program does not share information from participants with the police or threaten punishment for non-compliance with the program. As one participant put it, “When I knew they weren’t the police, that’s when they gained my trust.” From the time Advance Peace began in 2009 until 2017, firearm assaults causing injury or death were reduced by 66 percent in Richmond. These programs work, and they do not require police or threats of punishment.
Organizing and Building Power to Shift Resources and Promote Community Safety
Organizers across the country provide models for how we can shift resources away from policing and incarceration and toward infrastructure that makes communities safer. Addressing structural violence comes down to deciding how resources are spent—which means it comes down to power. A number of organizations are building community-level initiatives to address violence and shifting public resources through organizing campaigns.
In Colorado formerly incarcerated people and their allies, in an effort led by the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, have won millions in community reinvestment for housing, jobs, reentry supports, and health care. Colorado’s Transforming Safety Initiative, launched after the state legislature passed the Justice Reinvestment Crime Prevention bill with bipartisan support in 2017, focuses on preventing crime by investing in economic and community development in the neighborhoods most impacted by crime and incarceration. The program works with members of those communities to identify safety priorities and solutions and direct investments toward community organizations that provide supports such as housing for formerly incarcerated people. For example, the Second Chance Center’s Providence at the Heights (PATH) housing project, which opened in 2020, provides fifty supportive low-income housing units, including a common area with beautiful views of nature, trauma-informed relaxation rooms, a kitchen for cooking classes, a barbershop, counselors, and assistance with connecting to community-based health care, treatment, and employment services.
In Atlanta in 2019, after pressure from formerly incarcerated women and their allies, the City Council moved to shut down the City Detention Center and repurpose it as a hub called the Center for Equity, Wellness, and Freedom, where residents would be able to access health care, housing, childcare, and more. The Atlanta activists fought to reduce pretrial incarceration, end cash bail, eliminate city ordinances that criminalize poverty, and cut city contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The jail population shrank from over 1,000 to less than 100, and they began to articulate a vision for how the city could reallocate the $32.5 million it was spending each year on the jail to meet communities’ needs. The repurposed center would seek to do just that, putting the City of Atlanta out of the “jail business,” as Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms put it after the city council’s historic closure vote.
In Chicago youth organizers with the #NoCopAcademy campaign paved the way for recent calls to defund the police, which are gaining traction in the city. In fall 2020 over 38,000 residents participated in the city’s budget survey and 87 percent supported shifting funds away from policing and toward community services and public health. Chicago organizers are also building sustainable local economies that do not rely on oppressive extraction and criminalization. On the southside of Chicago, a coalition of organizations called Just Chicago is building a solidarity economy with the hope of creating a non-exploitative local economy and safe public spaces. The planned elements include community land trusts, worker-owned cooperative businesses, participatory budgets, and public banks. Another organization in Chicago, Equity and Transformation (EAT), was founded by and for formerly incarcerated and marginalized Black people to empower those working in the informal economy to transform social and economic conditions in the city. EAT’s project includes a guaranteed income pilot, helping Black and Latinx people navigate the process for cannabis dispensary licensure, advocating for the Illinois BREATHE Act, and more.
In Detroit in the summer of 2020, after the killing of George Floyd, youth organizers with 482 Forward launched a campaign to get the police out of Detroit schools, calling for complete defunding of the Detroit Public Schools Consolidated District (DPSCD) Police Department. In addition, the young people called for the creation of a committee of parents, students, union leaders, youth development experts, administrators, and community leaders who would oversee the defunding of police and security; create a holistic safety plan for schools that includes restorative justice training, peer-to-peer de-escalation training, and school safety initiatives; and evaluate the school district’s educator training, curriculum, and district practices to ensure they are anti-racist, anti-adultist, and trauma-informed.
Durham Beyond Policing, which has provided a model for organizers in other cities to reallocate public money from policing to true public safety, summarizes what is at stake:
Cities and counties represent a local social contract to pool collective resources for the public good. We create cities like Durham based on a principle that we can live safer, more joyful lives by relying on the collective rather than the individual. Public safety thus entails an ongoing commitment to sustaining community through relationship building and accountability, not by severing people’s ties to community and disposing of them. Our public resources are best used in the service of bolstering the integrity of communities, rather than undermining them.
Addressing violence in ways that do not center punishment leads us to consider more centrally the needs of those harmed by it. We know that one of the single most reliable predictors of committing violence is surviving it; any public safety strategy must foreground healing as a central tenet. This is critical in and of itself: people are entitled to healing simply because they were hurt. This work affirms the value of the person harmed and the values of that person’s community.
But this is not work that the criminal punishment system can or should do. Where government systems have failed to, groups across the country have taken up this work. One example is Detroit Heals Detroit, which uses healing centered engagement to foster justice for youth and transform their pain into power, or, as they put it, “to share our greatest vulnerabilities with the rest of the world while simultaneously working to dismantle oppressive systems for marginalized Detroit youth.”
Some of the most powerful models for healing have deep roots in indigenous and other cultural traditions. The National Compadres Network works through the Healing Generations Framework, whose core principles include placing culture and healing at the center of all service development and implementation; an intergenerational focus on elders, fathers, and the extended kinship network in taking responsibility for young men in the community; the long-standing traditional Huehuetlatolli (wisdom of the elders) and circulo de palabra (talking/healing circles); and principles of Un Hombre Noble (Noble Men), where honorable men are true to their word and have a sense of responsibility for their wellbeing and others’ in the community. La Cultura Cura, or Transformational Healing, is a method that restores one’s cultural identity as the foundation of wellbeing for individuals, families, communities, and society through a multigenerational process of learning traditional values and customs.
In Albany Urban Grief responds to the impact of community violence, death, and loss through education, crisis response, victim advocacy, and grief support. The founder, Lisa W. Good, understands that violence will not end if it remains unhealed, and creates spaces for people to process their grief in a way that accounts for prior and ongoing losses they also experience.
Similarly, mothers who have lost children to violence have organized groups to support each other. For many, part of the labor of grief is working collectively to prevent others from experiencing similar loss. Many of these groups (some of which are small non-profits, some of which are led by individuals) gather in the network Mothers in Charge, a violence prevention organization founded by Dr. Dorothy Johnson-Speight after the murder of her son. This network powerfully counters the more familiar advocacy configurations of crime victims, who often call for more policing and incarceration. They recognize how policing, incarceration, and surveillance not only failed to protect their children, but sometimes contributed to their deaths. Rather than punishment, they call for responses to violence that center prevention and healing.
Our criminal punishment system responds to the pain from violence by inflicting more pain—this time on the person who caused it. Those who have suffered loss recognize that pain does not demand more pain; it demands relief and repair. Many violence survivors find the criminal legal system process—which doubts their memories, forces them to relive their pain, blames them and their loved ones for the harm they endured, places them at heightened risk of retaliatory violence, and does not provide them with answers to their questions or opportunities to shape the outcome of what happened—retraumatizing. More than half of survivors do not engage with the system in the first place, often for these reasons. They instead choose another way forward because the punishment system deployed in their names—and paid for by the resources that could otherwise have been dedicated to them—leave them with far less than they deserve.
Though prevention work is critical, we cannot prevent violence entirely. And, although healing work is also essential, it is not the only necessary response after an act of harm. Communities also need methods to hold people meaningfully accountable. Among the most effective are restorative and transformative justice, whose core approaches precede both courts and police, and produce better results.
Restorative justice processes—in which those impacted by harm come together to acknowledge the impact and reach an agreement about how the responsible person can make things as right as possible––are rooted in a wide range of indigenous practices. These processes have been passed down through generations and are adapted in countless communities and formations. Often referred to as “circles,” they include everyone impacted by harm––the survivors, those who caused it, and both of their support people. The circles identify ways to help repair the harm and prevent similar harm from recurring.
Transformative justice approaches expand the inquiry to include the larger social conditions that precipitate violence. GenerationFive, a collaborative that brings a systemic framework to understanding child sexual abuse, describes transformative justice as “seek[ing] safety and accountability without relying on alienation, punishment, or State or systemic violence, including incarceration or policing.” These approaches address interpersonal harm in ways that transform relationships and behavior, while also combatting structural violence to free people from the conditions that create and perpetuate pain.
Restorative justice has long been practiced both informally and formally and has been applied systematically over the past several decades as an “alternative” to courts and prisons. Most of these system applications have been limited to nonviolent crime—theft, vandalism, and harm that does not include physical violence (though some long-standing organizations dedicated to this work, such as Restorative Response Baltimore, have expanded to include more serious instances of violence). When restorative justice has been applied to violence, it has been limited primarily to young people in juvenile or family courts. Impact Justice is working with jurisdictions across the country to divert cases from juvenile justice systems into restorative justice processes, and is beginning to expand to younger adults in the adult criminal court system based on their success in the Bay Area.
Common Justice, based in Brooklyn, works exclusively with violent crime in adult courts. The organization diverts violent felonies, such as robberies and assaults, away from the adult criminal court system into a restorative justice model that serves as an alternative to prison for those responsible for crime and an avenue to healing for those harmed. In St. Louis the Freedom Community Center has recently launched the Free Us Project, an eight-month restorative justice program that seeks to intervene and work with people who are experiencing or perpetuating harm before they interact with the police or at the beginning of their interaction with the criminal punishment system. They divert cases, including certain crimes of violence, pre-charge with the cooperation of the District Attorney. Countless community leaders—such as Cheryl Graves and the Community Justice for Youth Institute in Chicago, Mariame Kaba and Project Nia in Chicago and transformharm.org, and Mimi Kim and Creative Interventions—are building responses outside the criminal punishment system.
The expansion of these approaches has been largely constrained by politics. We make a grave mistake, however, if we conflate political constraints with the efficacy of the interventions. Because restorative justice has been most visibly applied to nonviolent crime, many assume that is all it is built for. But when we fail to apply restorative justice processes to cases of violence, we squander one of our most promising solutions to serious harm.
Harm requires repair. Punishment is not repair. Punishment is passive—it is done to us—accountability is active. It requires that we acknowledge what we have done, recognize its impact, express genuine remorse, make things as right as possible (ideally in ways defined by those harmed), and try to become someone who will not cause harm again. Accountability is difficult work, and, unlike the passivity of punishment, it produces positive change. In restorative justice processes, people look into the eyes of those that they hurt, listen to their pain, own their responsibility for that pain, and affirm their responsibility to fix it. Punishment only works to shame people. As Dr. James Gilligan has taught, shame is a core driver of violence; its cultivation runs contrary to the interest of safety. Accountability does the opposite; it recognizes human dignity. With that dignity comes an obligation not to be isolated, separated, and confined, but to make right. Punishment assumes that the only thing society can do with someone who has used their power to cause harm is to diminish that person and their power. Accountability instead assumes that that person, upright in themselves, can use their power to correct the harm.
Because nearly all people who have committed violence will at some stage live among us again, a question central to the production of safety is: How do we want people who have caused harm to change—in the way prison changes people, or in the way that restorative justice does? No one who dreams of safety dreams of a neighborhood of ashamed, isolated, injured, disenfranchised people. So why do we opt for prisons, which are defined by these characteristics? Restorative justice circumvents the contradictions inherent in incarceration. It recognizes the dimensions of people—dignity, connectedness, healing, responsibility, agency—that align with the behavior a society hopes to foster and offers a coherent approach that produces both near-term and lasting safety.
But society also has an obligation to survivors, and the argument for restorative justice displacing incarceration is perhaps clearest from this vantage point. Despite popular depictions of survivors as mostly white and mostly vengeful, people of color are far more likely to experience violence than white people. Moreover, most survivors, in a trend not defined by race, prefer that those who harmed them are offered alternatives to incarceration.
For instance, at Common Justice, people responsible for violence are only given the opportunity to participate in the program if the survivors of their crimes agree. These survivors are people who have suffered serious violence—knives to their bodies, guns to their heads, lacerations to their livers, punctured lungs—and have engaged the criminal court system in a way likely to result in the incarceration of the person who hurt them. Yet, when Common Justice is offered, 90 percent of them choose a path other than that of incarceration that they initially pursued. Some choose an alternative process for the reasons we might first imagine—compassion, forgiveness, the belief that people can change, or a desire to be part of transformation. But most choose the restorative justice process not out of a philosophical commitment to a certain set of ideals, but because they believe something other than incarceration will better meet their needs for safety and justice and ensure that others do not experience the same suffering.
The evidence supports their beliefs. Restorative justice processes across the country substantially reduce recidivism. Moreover, survivors express greater levels of satisfaction with these approaches than with the criminal court system. This makes sense, as they provide survivors with the basic things they seek when they have been hurt: answers to their questions, opportunities to be heard, acknowledgement of the wrongdoing, and a sense of power relative to the outcome of the harm. They want an opportunity to shape the response and restitution, as well as the return of property and other concrete forms of repair. They want assurance that the person who harmed them will engage in a process of change, grounds to believe that the person will not hurt them or others, and a coherent narrative that can facilitate their healing. These factors mirror those that psychological literature identifies as critical for reducing posttraumatic stress.
While survivors’ experiences and needs vary immensely, nearly all want two things: to know that the person who hurt them will not hurt them again, and to know that that person will not hurt anyone else. Restorative justice, particularly when practiced in a larger context of transformative justice aimed at upending the conditions that gave rise to violence in the first place, is among the most promising paths to meet those needs. These approaches stand to do what policing and prisons have never done and can never do: deliver short- and long-term safety.
What Will and Will Not Work
In choosing how we as a society will work to generate safety, it is important to understand why the current dominant approaches—policing and incarceration—do not work. Violence is fundamentally structural; policing and incarceration enact and exacerbate large-scale, structural harm while treating violence as though it were discrete, individual behavior. Violence is a public health issue; policing and incarceration are enforcement-based, not health-based. Violence often results from inequity and loss of opportunity; policing and incarceration exacerbate inequity and curtail opportunity—both in their immediate application and in the unending collateral consequences that attach to convictions. Violence is often the product of pain; policing and incarceration reproduce, rather than heal, pain. Violence requires accountability and repair; policing and incarceration systematically separate people from the pathways to both, to the detriment of those responsible for harm and those who survive it. In fact, incarceration—which has at its core the defining features that generate violence—is a measurable, statistically significant driver of crime and violence.
Yet these community-based safety approaches are still vastly underutilized when compared with surveillance, arrests, convictions, and incarceration, despite the long-standing contributions they have made to public safety. They are responsible for the safety we do have, for the instances when harm diminishes rather than escalates, for producing individual and collective wellness. They are the ways Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color have persisted, healed, and thrived despite centuries of white supremacist violence. They may not be known to some people in positions with the authority to determine governmental responses to violence, but they are known to thousands, even millions, of people, oftentimes informally and without the labels or categories offered here. They have been handed down across generations and reshaped and regenerated by young people repeatedly. It is not wrong to say that a future without violence will require imagination: it undoubtedly will, and we will want and need more than what we already have. But the notion that we are starting from scratch is fundamentally inaccurate, ahistorical, and racist.
A significant barrier to expanding the approaches described here is that these solutions, particularly when considered alternatives to the criminal punishment system, are seen as “soft” on crime, which has largely been seen as a losing political position. Fearmongering is a winning campaign strategy for elected prosecutors, sheriffs, mayors, and legislators, and the terrifying prospect of someone set free into a program subsequently causing further harm lurks in the background of virtually every criminal legal system reform platform. This unifocal approach is shifting, though. Over the past several years, more prosecutors—from Chicago to St. Louis, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, from Baltimore to New Orleans, to Brooklyn—are running on platforms to reduce incarceration while increasing safety and racial equity. And they are winning. In a country where one in two people has had a loved one incarcerated, people know that policing and incarceration are not conducive to justice or safety. Some local elected officials are getting in line with their constituents, particularly those who will be directly impacted by criminal justice policy and who often make up majorities in their districts.
Indeed, the most significant barrier to expanding these solutions is power—political power, narrative power, and economic power. Political power is not only the capacity of a group of people to ensure elected officials act in their interest and the interest of those they love, though it includes that. It also includes the capacity to develop solutions outside of the state apparatus without the intrusion of the state into problems and their resolution. It includes the power to define what constitutes safety and to choose the methods to achieve it.
Narrative power is about whose stories shape our culture. It is not just about visibility or wide dissemination, but also about broad social influence and the ability to render certain things possible and others impossible. As Color of Change defines it, narrative power is “the ability to create leverage over those who set the incentives, rules, and norms that shape society and human behavior.” We have been fed too many stories that demonize people who commit violence, conflate Blackness and dangerousness, center certain survivors at the expense of others, and foreclose options and imagination. Narrative power is not just about the telling of those stories, but the centering of them in our culture as determinants of what we will do collectively.
Economic power comes down to resources. The state has funded policing and prisons at the expense of schools, hospitals, public health systems, healthy food and clean water, mental health and drug treatment, and other solutions to interpersonal violence. We have systematically divested from the things that reduce violence while simultaneously investing in the things that produce it. Any gains made in reducing violence through this strategy should be understood as succeeding despite our skewed priorities, not because of them. There is no way out of violence without redirecting money.
Thus far public debate primarily has asked: Can we be safe while defunding the police? Instead, we should ask: can we be safe without defunding the police? We cannot, for two primary reasons. First, resources are not unlimited and the resources for the social supports that will produce safety have to come from somewhere. While we technically could raise those collective resources through substantial increases in taxation, including on the richest, this approach is unlikely in our current political landscape. The reality is that our budgets are moral documents that require trade-offs. As is, we spend virtually all our safety money on police.
But the second reason would not be surmountable even through taxation or other creative allocation: policing as we know it affirmatively undermines both individual and structural approaches to producing safety. Policing generates racial inequity by force when inequity itself drives violence. Policing responds to harm with separation when safety is produced in connection. Policing inflicts violence that exacerbates long-standing cycles of individual and collective pain and trauma when healing is fundamental prevention work. And policing drives economic and social disenfranchisement through collateral consequences when the ability to meet one’s basic needs and contribute to one’s community are key protective factors against violence. The interventions that are succeeding in producing safety now are not only doing so without adequate resources, but they are also doing so despite the intrusion, interruption, and displacement of their work by police and the criminal punishment system.
The project of displacing police and prisons is not primarily a project of doing less. As abolitionists such as Dr. Angela Davis and Dr. Ruth Wilson Gilmore teach us, the displacement of these systems is primarily a labor of creation, not destruction. To end violence, it is imperative that we ask, what is currently producing safety? What are the barriers to the expansion and greater efficacy of those strategies? If an honest and rigorous account leads us to see both policing and the resources our society commits to it as compromising that safety work, then it is our duty to make the shifts necessary for people to survive.
Editors’ Note: A longer version of this work, including citations, will be available at Square One.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Support us with a donation this giving season.