Danielle breaks the vicious cycle of violence perpetuated by incarceration by offering an alternative that restores accountability and dignity to all the parties involved.
The New Idea
There is growing bi-partisan movement in the U.S. to halve the prison population and end mass incarceration. But almost all efforts focus on reducing sentences for those charged with relatively minor, non-violent offenses. While these charges do account for roughly half of those behind bars, Danielle believes that we must address violent offences, too, not only because halving our enormous prison population isn’t an ambitious enough goal, but because incarceration is simply not effective in preventing future violence.
Through her work with Common Justice, Danielle runs the only “alternative to prison” program in the adult courts in the country for people charged with violent offenses like assault, robbery, and even attempted murder. She is pushing the boundaries of alternatives to incarceration into new (and for many, uncomfortable) territory, starting by demonstrating very real interventions. Her success to date in some of the country’s largest District Attorney’s offices – in the Bronx and in Brooklyn – is already spreading around the country.
Danielle is careful to ensure that her success is understood not just as a way to incarcerate fewer people, but to expose incarceration itself as an ugly, damaging tool that should only be used as a last resort when no other tools are available — not just because it is cruel but because except for rare cases it doesn’t actually work: not for the people charged with crimes, nor for the survivors of violence. In fact, while survivors are rarely asked what justice looks like to them, they play a central role in the Common Justice model. Together, through this combination of new stakeholders, new roles, a new model, and a concerted effort to share what’s working, Danielle is helping the criminal justice movement re-focus on the goal of addressing and reducing violence.
 Half of today’s federal prison population would still be nearly four times the TOTAL federal prison population of 1980. Danielle notes that, “there were 443,850 people locked up in US day I was born. Now it’s 2.3 million people. Halving this number isn’t enough.”
More than 2.3 million Americans are behind bars, more per capita by far than any other country. With half of all those incarcerated doing time for violent crime, the system cannot truly be reformed without addressing this population.
Most calls to reduce the prison population, however, focus on juveniles and people convicted of non-violent offenses. And while appealing for “mercy,” these asks often perpetuate unhelpful narratives that implicitly endorse the incarceration of others; the case for keeping people charged with non-violent offenses out of the system is to not lock them up “with those truly dangerous” people.
Danielle believes we can and should demand mercy from our system, and for everyone involved. But better yet, we should demand accountability, not just of individuals who’ve harmed other people, but of the system itself so that it actually produces less violence and more safety.
As things stand today, incarceration doesn’t address, much less solve, the problem of violence. Rather, it is a root cause of violence in America. Danielle believes that, “it’s not our fundamental nature to commit acts of violence, so when we do it means deep things within us have been disrupted and re-wired.” The expression of violence is often the result of structural factors like inequity and inadequate access to healing supports for trauma, and of individual factors such as shame, isolation, exposure to violence, and/or an inability to meet economic needs. And yet incarceration - our primary response to violence - shames, isolates, impoverishes, and unleashes more violence on those in its care. As Danielle has observed, “the thing that prison attacks is the thing in me that feels pain when you suffer. That humanity is under daily attack in prison. And while many people find ways to protect their humanity even in a context that aims to destroy it, most people are worse for it.” Incarceration, therefore, will never end violence. Pain is not relieved when other people are hurt. As Danielle points out, “this is not how humans heal.”
The moral case for incarceration is beginning to crumble, but the presence of viable alternatives will be a necessary part of the any cultural shift towards making the idea of prisons intolerable. Until recently, most interventions have shied away from directly engaging with those harmed by violence. Danielle decided to do something to solve this problem.
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.”
Growing up in Chicago during the peak of the “crack epidemic” and at the moment in history when mass incarceration as we now know it was gaining its footing in the United States, Danielle saw and experienced a lot of violence; she even committed some herself. She also first learned of the inequities in the criminal justice system as someone who benefited from them. Not only did she see firsthand that the criminal justice system could act mercifully if it wanted to, but she received the “gift” of having the veil pulled back on her privilege. It was at that point that she realized, “[she] had to make the inequities in that system [her] enemy and find others with whom [she] could fight them until [they] won or until [she] died, whichever came first.”
It took her some time to figure out how to make this her life’s work. Danielle has noted that, “I didn’t grow up knowing you could do social justice work for a living. The people I saw growing up doing this work were not paid for it.” And yet she knew the kind of community member or neighbor she wanted to be, so she got involved designing programs that taught conflict resolution through the arts in schools and juvenile detention centers, doing gang intervention work, and eventually developing violence intervention curricula, leading a program for young men returning from incarceration on Rikers Island, and leading programs for court-involved and recently incarcerated youth.
Danielle thinks often of one of her mentors in Chicago from when she was a teenager, who told her “it’s hard to get people to fight for a sh*t sandwich, easy on the sh*t.” She knows the criminal justice system reform movement includes critical work to demand less of what is wrong (i.e. shorter sentences, less degrading conditions of confinement, etc.), but she believes deeply that transformative change will require not merely asking for less, but doing the work of building and fighting for the solutions that can ultimately displace the system we seek to eradicate.
Danielle’s personal experience, professional experiences, her commitment to community, the wide range of mentors who have nurtured her along the way inform her work today.