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Restorative Justice Activist Advocates for Prison Abolition at Harvard Kennedy School Event

Restorative justice activist Danielle Sered spoke about prison abolition at a Harvard Kennedy School event hosted on Zoom.
Restorative justice activist Danielle Sered spoke about prison abolition at a Harvard Kennedy School event hosted on Zoom. By Karina G. Gonzalez-Espinoza
By William Y. Tan and Annabel M. Yu, Contributing Writers

Danielle Sered, a restorative justice activist, advocated for prison abolition and extensive reforms to the current criminal justice system during an online Harvard Kennedy School event on Wednesday.

Sandra Susan Smith, a criminal justice professor at the Kennedy School, moderated the event. The discussion, held over Zoom, was part of a semester-long speaker series at HKS focused on abolitionist policies and practices.

Sered said her end goal is the full abolition of the prison system by enacting meaningful and incremental changes to the current legal system.

“The overarching thing is that our criminal legal system has to do less,” Sered said. “We have to make fewer things illegal, we have to arrest fewer people, we have to prosecute fewer people who are arrested, we have to set bail for fewer people and at a lower amount.”

“We have to build the social infrastructure that ultimately can render incarceration obsolete,” she added.

In 2009, Sered founded Common Justice, an “alternative-to-incarceration” organization that seeks to divert violent felony cases from the criminal legal system. She published a book in 2019 titled “Until We Reckon,” which argues for pragmatic solutions to incarceration.

At the start of the talk, Sered detailed what she called “moral problems” in the current criminal justice model. According to her, the prison apparatus enforces needless violence and exacerbates “underlying traumas.”

In particular, Sered criticized prison for “putting human beings in cages where we know they are likely to be assaulted, to be degraded, to be sexually assaulted.”

“I believe all of that is a heavy moral weight for any society to be worthy to bear,” she added.

Sered said the current carceral system fails to prevent recidivism and contributes to a culture of violence.

“The core features of prison are shame, isolation, exposure to violence, and an inability to meet one’s economic needs. So we’ve baked into our core responses to violence precisely the things that we know generate it,” Sered said. “It’s like showing up at a house fire with a hose full of gasoline and acting surprised when the flames rage higher.”

Sered also contrasted the recidivism rate in prisons with that of Common Justice, her own organization.

“What we know from the overwhelming evidence is that prison is likelier to produce more harmful outcomes,” she said. “It has recidivism rates, in some places, upwards of 80 percent.”

“If Common Justice had an 80 percent failure rate, we would not all be together today,” she added. “I would not have been on your invitation list.”

Common Justice focuses on providing people who committed violent felonies with the opportunity to recognize the harm they caused, according to its website. Sered said her data indicated that Common Justice produces a better recidivism rate than the current carceral system.

“Common Justice — since our inception — has had fewer than 7 percent of our participants terminated from the program for new crimes on our watch,” she said.

Sered also said attendees should view prisons as “generative of violence” and said mass incarceration is rooted in the United States’ history of slavery and colonization.

“Prisons are the grandchildren of slavery,” she said.

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