The US Cannot Incarcerate its Way out of Violence

  • Of the over 2 million people behind bars in the U.S., what percentage are locked up for violent offenses?

  • How effective is the criminal justice system in reducing violence?

  • What causes violence?​

We will explore these questions through a discussion, reading and case study on dealing with violence.​

  • Warm Up

  • Reading and Study Guide

  • Video: Common Justice and Study Guide​




Ending mass incarceration in the U.S. requires finding more effective ways of dealing with violence. In 2015, 54% of state prisoners were serving sentences for violent offenses.


“We cannot incarcerate our way out of violence,” writes Danielle Sered, who leads a program to advance solutions to violence that are alternatives to prison in New York City. Research shows that prisons fail to transform those who have committed violence or protect those who have been harmed. Part of the failure lies in the fact that incarceration treats violence as a problem of individual pathology instead of as a problem of social context and history. Violence is driven by poverty, inequity, lack of opportunity, shame, isolation, and like a public health epidemic, violence itself drives violence.


Locking people up perpetuates a cycle of violence. As Sered writes,  “Mass incarceration also fails to solve the problem of violence because it is a response that treats violence as a matter of “good vs. evil.” The reality is far more complicated. Nearly everyone who commits violence has also survived it, and few have gotten formal support to heal. Although people’s history of victimization in no way excuses the harm they cause, it does implicate our society for not having addressed their pain earlier. And just as people who commit violence are not exempt from victimization, many survivors of violence have complex lives, imperfect histories, and even criminal convictions.”


Her Common Justice project attempts to break this cycle of violence. Through restorative justice, it aims to break cycles of violence in poor communities by joining young people who have hurt as well as been harmed in a process that promotes healing and accountability. Thus far, fewer than 7% of participants have been terminated from the program for committing new crimes.


Another program called Cure Violence treats violence as a public health issue, as opposed to simply a criminal justice issue, and has been effective in reducing it. Cure Violence treats violence like a contagious disease and aims to stop it by treating it in the same manner as a public health crisis: by interrupting transmission of the disease, reducing the risk of those at highest risk, and changing community norms. Today the program is in operation in 15 US cities, including at 18 stites in NYC. In 2015, Cure Violence began operating in Queensbridge public housing, known as some of the most violent public housing in New York City. After the program began, Queensbridge went over 365 days without a shooting.

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Restorative Justice Case Study: Common Justice