Restorative Justice Approaches to Harm: Danielle Sered, Common Justice

“Nobody stays safe alone. Nobody transforms alone. We do a lot of relationship-building. We keep bringing more people into the circle: neighbors, family, friends, clergy. We broaden the circle until it’s safe.”

Restorative justice is a practice increasingly used in schools, the criminal legal system, intimate partner violence programs and community accountability settings to replace punishment with restoration. It’s a tool that could be used with families to address harm without involvement of the child welfare system. For instance, a family member could ask a parent to enter into an accountability process if they are concerned about the impact of that parent’s depression or drug use on the child. The parent and people who she identifies as part of her community care network could create agreements around accountability and support, before the system gets involved.

Currently, it would be a legal gray area to do this kind of work, because of mandatory reporting laws, although some organizations use similar approaches.

We spoke with Danielle Sered, executive director of Common Justice, to talk about the processes of innovation and the risk management needed to develop new models. Common Justice, which operates in Brooklyn and the Bronx, is the first organization in the country to use survivor-centered restorative practices with people who commit violent felonies.  It does not work with cases of family violence.

Q: How did you and the Common Justice team first develop a program that you really felt confident was capable of creating accountability and safety?

A: We started Common Justice out of the Vera Institute for Justice as a pilot project because no one in the country had done anything like this, and Vera had a longstanding reputation. They had developed countless demonstration projects: CASES, Neighborhood Defender Services, Wildcat Service Corporation. They had done something like 25 projects at that point, and were also a research institute, and their leadership had run the Department of Corrections. They had crucial credibility with criminal justice leader peers.

One of the things we had to do was be laser-focused on safety. We are extremely interested in transformation and healing, but we also cared and continue to care deeply about safety.

At our inception, as we were piloting the work, our approach was: What do we do on day 1 to get to day 2 without anyone hurting somebody? How do we get to day 10? From week 3 to week 4? We saw at the time a fair number of re-arrests for low level crime: jumping turnstiles, smoking marijuana, shoplifting. We cared, of course, but these were not our primary consideration—we weren’t doing an intervention that would immediately change all criminality, we were focused on transformation. However, at the same time, we recognized those things were disruptive to their criminal justice and employment status. If we lost that, we’d lose everything. So we began to focus on stability more broadly from the beginning of each participant’s engagement with us and have seen the benefits of that ever since.

We think about our work as an evolution from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. On the first day, it’s probably the threat of the sentence that motivates most of our participants. Then it becomes about keeping their job, education, or being in their kids’ lives. By a little ways in, you start to get into values. It goes from the presence of a consequence to the presence of hope. A path they can walk that ends in their freedom, a decent livelihood, living to age 25, living a long, good life. People think we’re up against bravado, but we’re up against despair.

Q: What made prosecutors and the courts willing to work with you?

A: First and foremost, it’s our success.  Responsible parties who go through Common Justice almost never go on to hurt others.  But just as crucially, we have always been extremely focused on the experiences of our survivors, and we communicate their experiences to our partners. Our survivors have shared they felt safer and better; it worked for them.

We only take cases where survivors consented. This happens in 9 out of 10 cases. That made the DA’s office curious because it ran contrary to so much of their experience. Why did survivors say yes? What was better about restorative justice than what they had been offering through the courts? Survivors have said yes to us because they know this makes more sense than prison.

Q: How does your program help people who have done harm feel safe?

A: Participants are required to enter a plea, and that has downsides, but it also means that none of what they’re saying about the crime is new information. At the same time, we have an agreement with the District Attorney that our meetings are confidential. It’s not legally protected, it’s just an agreement, but it’s never been violated. We can’t have these conversations without complete confidentiality and the DA understands that and wants us to succeed.

We are very clear that if one of our participants is currently hurting somebody or about to hurt somebody, we have to tell. We tell our participants not to discuss past crimes in detail with us. Do not give us names and dates and places. We talk to them about how to talk to us about that content, and we walk these lines responsibly and with care. It’s not like magic fairy dust falls when someone enters a program and everyone can now be safe. They may be dealing with ‘gangs’ and street organizations and retaliatory debt. They have to develop new, non-violent ways to protect themselves from harm.

And we genuinely care about safety—both theirs and the safety of the community. It’s definitely a balancing act. Our participants are free in our name. We’re responsible for their freedom. We have to hold it all at once.

Q: How do you work on family situations that may come up in your work?

A: Most of our participants are men, and most of them are not primary caregivers, but ACS comes up relatively frequently.

A number of women primary caregivers we’ve worked with had an ACS case opened basically on arrest. But, also, a fair number of people are calling ACS. We have participants whose relationships are characterized by discord and poor communication, and sometimes ACS becomes a lever in power struggles between young parents. We see a lot of custody battles, and a good deal of domestic violence. In the middle of all of that are children who deserve to be safe.

We also see family violence between teens and parents or grandparents. Our young men are 16-26, so they are both the children and the parents.

We do as much as we can through relationship with support people as early as during the intake processes. We know nobody stays safe alone. Nobody transforms alone. We do a lot of relationship-building early on, so when these issues arise, they have people there for them. We keep bringing more people into the circle: neighbors, family, friends, clergy. We broaden the circle until it’s safe.

Many of our people are quite isolated from their blood families. When that separation is due to past negative behavior on their part, we try to mend relationships, so those family members can be relied on.

In family circles, we’re mandated reporters, and we’re careful about how we navigate that space. In 12 years, we’ve case conferenced countless family challenges and have called ACS once. That was with a participant where there was pretty severe risk. We couldn’t not call based on what we’d seen ourselves. We told our participant that, and we advocated for a pathway where she was supported and didn’t lose her kid. Otherwise, it has always felt like we could manage the things we knew responsibly and that the mandated reporters on our staff were still upholding their professional obligations while helping put necessary supports in place.

There is so much shame and pain for parents who are struggling. All anyone wants to do is be the best parent to their child. Any of us who have children and are honest know that it stretches you in the greatest limits of love, and other limits, and surfaces our childhood pain, whatever you did and didn’t receive.  We try to be a source of healing for everyone affected by that pain.

Q: Do you think this type of process could be used between family members?

A: We do not intend to build that intervention, but yes, if you get this kind of program created for families, we could call you. The issues a program like that would face are similar: despair, a feeling that nothing will change, and that they don’t have what they need to live in a way that feels good, materially or emotionally.  If you could transform that, it would be extraordinary.

Interview by Keyna Franklin and Nora McCarthy