Common Justice

Stoneleigh Fellow: Danielle Sered, 2009-2014

Danielle Sered's Common Justice project provides an alternative to incarceration for young people (ages 16-24) who commit violent crimes, and develops a consistent method of supporting the recovery of the harmed parties. Danielle uses the term "participatory justice" to describe her work which has grown out of the Restorative Justice field.

The current societal response to crime, particularly violent crime, depends almost completely on incarceration, a response which is both expensive and ineffective. Moreover, the needs of victims go largely unaddressed. The basis of Ms. Sered's approach rests in part on her recognition that the people most likely to be victims of violent crime are young men of color—although they do not view themselves as victims. Thus they rarely seek victim services to which they are entitled, and even when they do such services are often inadequate or inappropriate. Victims of violence who do not receive support following their own traumatic event are often more likely to commit violence themselves. Quality services to this population, she says, would serve as a crime prevention strategy.  While the project will serve anyone who is harmed by crime, regardless of identity, Common Justice is committed to engaging these young men of color currently excluded from services.

What is Participatory Justice?

Participatory justice—an alternative to the traditional adversarial court system—promotes healing and accountability and facilitates the recovery of individuals and communities. Participatory processes give responsible parties ("offenders") the opportunity to see and understand the human consequences of their actions-as well as the opportunity to make things right, to the extent possible. While a great deal of emphasis is often placed on helping individuals understand the consequences of their actions, the opportunity to repair past wrongs is equally if not more important to changing their behavior. One participant in Vera's Adolescent Reentry Initiative (ARI), a young man who had committed several assaults, put it this way:

"Of course I know how it hurts to be beat up like that-I've been beat up that way myself how many times since I was a kid? I know. The thing you gotta learn if you're going to come through is that you can fix it, you can fix things, and if you can help fix their life, then maybe you can fix your life, too."

Click Here for More of This Example From Experience

For those who have been harmed ("victims"), participatory processes aim to meet a number of basic needs. Many of those who are harmed by a crime experience a strong need to ask the responsible person questions. They want to ask: Why did you do it? Could I have prevented it? Were you going to hurt me more? Was it my fault?

And they want to express their experience of the harmful act. They want to communicate to the person who hurt them that their actions had consequences; that they are human and unique and significantly changed by the incident; and that they are angry and hurt and possibly afraid. They want to be heard.

Finally, participatory justice processes recognize that family, friends, neighbors, teachers, clergy, mentors, and others have a great deal at stake and as much to offer in the aftermath of harm-both in terms of holding people accountable and in helping people get well. When appropriate, the process thus seeks to give these community members a seat at the table.

Project Goals

The essence of the program is to help those responsible understand the impact of their crime, give a voice and redress to the harmed parties and engage the stakeholders within the community (family, friends, teachers, clergy, mentors, etc.) in the aftermath of harm. Specific goals are to:

  • Increase satisfaction with the court process for everyone involved;
  • Reduce recidivism rates;
  • Improve mental health outcomes for victims.

The process calls for cases to be diverted as early as possible and to bring all parties to a facilitated dialogue (or "conference") resulting in binding agreements which will then take the place of court imposed sentences. Project staff will do the follow up. Completed agreements reflect favorably on the offender's permanent record. This element may go some way towards addressing the fact that post incarceration, these young people face mostly insurmountable odds in terms of employment.

Mature Justice: Developing Restorative Practices for Serious Young Offenders
Read Danielle Sered's 2006 paper presented at the International Institute of Restorative Practices

Project Method

Common Justice currently targets young adults in Brooklyn, New York, who have been convicted of violent crimes. Involvement in Common Justice begins just after indictment, and cases are diverted as early as possible to minimize court contact and the unnecessary use of resources. Harmed parties go through a preparatory process in which they:

  • gain an understanding of the program's process and its relation to the court process;
  • identify the emotional, physical, mental, and other consequences of their experience;
  • situate that experience in context of their own histories, families, and communities, as well as those of the responsible parties;
  • develop tools to communicate their experience in an empowering and safe manner;
  • foster a readiness to listen actively to the responsible party and a comfort in setting their own limits;
  • begin to think through potential sanctions that would serve a restorative, rather than merely punitive, function; and
  • make contact with therapeutic or other services to initiate their own recovery.
Responsible parties go through a similar orientation, which will include many of the above facets as well as:
  • identifying their accountability and motivations for their action;
  • fostering a readiness to honor the harmed party's needs;
  • identifying an initial and realistic set of appropriate sanctions to which they would be willing and able to commit; and
  • participating in interventions to begin to address the harmful behavior.

Once prepared, parties come to a conference with an experienced facilitator and one or several support people (most often family or friends) and negotiate an agreement that meets the needs of the harmed party and is possible for the responsible party to fulfill. These agreements may take place in a single session or in multiple ones, and involve an exploration of harms, motives, needs, and impacts resulting from the harm. Among the most common agreements are:

  • apologies to the harmed parties and/or their families;
  • a wide array of targeted community service projects;
  • limited financial restitution;
  • repair of physical damage;
  • return of stolen property; and
  • commitment to participate in rehabilitative programming.

Project staff follow up to ensure the agreements that emerge from the conferences are upheld, and help both parties access services to facilitate their healing, education, employment, and other basic needs.

An Innovative Approach

Generally, this approach has been well researched in several countries and shown to be effective in a number of ways.1 However, in the U.S. thus far, the programs that exist have been of limited scope in terms of type of offense and in the ways in which they do or do not integrate with the traditional systems. There has not yet been a systematic application of the principles to more serious crimes involving young adults or to integrating the methodology with actual needs of the participants and providing follow through. Danielle's project is also one of the first in the country to work primarily in communities of color. The project is further innovative in bringing together a diverse set of stakeholders to support the effort. Supporters include the Brooklyn District Attorney, Brooklyn Defender Services, Crime Victims Board, and others.

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1 See:

The Home Office: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/crime-victims/victims/restorative-justice/. The report: Lawrence Sherman and Heather Strang.

Restorative Justice: the Evidence, The Smith Institute, 2007. Available online at: http://www.smith-institute.org.uk/publications.htm.

Mark S. Umbreit, Robert B. Coates, and Betty Vos, "The Impact of Victim-Offender Mediation: Two Decades of Research," Federal Probation 65, no. 3 (December 2001).

Caroline M. Angel. Crime Victims Meet their Offenders: Testing the Impact of Restorative Justice Conferences on Victims' Post-Traumatic Stress Symptoms. Dissertation in Nursing and Criminology at the University of PA, 2005.