Transformative Justice Transforming Mass Incarceration?

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As mass incarceration and state violence vis a vis police brutality are coming increasingly under fire, even in mainstream media, many communities are turning toward alternative methods of addressing violence. Transformative justice–as opposed to criminal justice–seeks to create alternatives to incarceration in a similar manner to its less-radical cousin, restorative justice. But transformative justice does something else, as well: transformative practices encourage communities to avoid involving police in crimes, even in instances of violence.

How can community practices of transformative justice transform the larger criminal justice system? Can community-based methods of addressing violence be the key to transforming this society?

What is Transformative Justice?

According to Generation Five, an organization dedicated to transformative justice in cases of gender-based violence, especially child abuse, transformative justice is described as the following:

Transformative justice [is] a liberatory approach to violence…[which] seeks safety and accountability without relying on alienation, punishment, or State or systemic violence, including incarceration or policing.

Three core beliefs:

Individual justice and collective liberation are equally important, mutually supportive, and fundamentally intertwined—the achievement of one is impossible without the achievement of the other.

The conditions that allow violence to occur must be transformed in order to achieve justice in individual instances of violence. Therefore, Transformative Justice is both a liberating politic and an approach for securing justice.

State and systemic responses to violence, including the criminal legal system and child welfare agencies, not only fail to advance individual and collective justice but also condone and perpetuate cycles of violence.”

Because of these core beliefs, rather than seeking to integrate transformative practices into the current criminal justice system, transformative justice practitioners actively advocate for remaining outside of state intervention.

Transformative Justice is a response to the State’s inability to provide justice on either individual or collective levels. Therefore, in this paper, we propose a model that responds to experiences of violence without relying on current State systems. We believe this to be a liberating politic that creates opportunities for healing and transformation rather than retribution and punishment. Transformative Justice moves us toward equity and liberation rather than maintaining the inequality that the current State and systems maintain.
Herein lie the crucial differences between transformative and restorative practices (whose alternatives-to-incarceration practitioners actively seek representation within the criminal justice system): transformative justice practitioners reject state power as fundamentally unjust, and seek to untangle their work from state control.
Why? Because, according to transformative justice advocates:

The epidemic of mass imprisonment has made Black synonymous with criminal. But there is another reason why this keeps happening. Why after Trayvon Martin, was there Renisha McBride? And after Renisha, why was there Eric Garner?It’s because when we call for justice for these victims of race-based violence, we’re calling for the criminal prosecution of their killers. And criminal prosecution alone will do nothing to shift the culture of fear, hatred and oppression that allows these race-based killings to happen over and over and over again.

That is because a criminal prosecution is not about justice, healing or repairing harm. And it’s certainly not about preventing such harm from re-occurring in the future. And there’s a deep, terrible, tragic irony here — that we have to look to the very system that was an accomplice to these killings for relief — for some facsimile of justice.

Transformative justice practitioners argue that there is a choice, however: by equipping communities to engage in transformative practices instead of resorting to the only option often presented to people–involving the police in cases of violence–harm can actually be repaired and further harm can actually be prevented.

Can Transformative Practices Achieve Justice?

While many people across the country increasingly accept alternatives to incarceration for youth who are convicted of minor, nonviolent offenses–indeed, restorative practices dealing with those kinds of cases are becoming more common–many are skeptical about transformative justice advocates’ claims that alternatives to incarceration should also be used in cases as grave as rape and child abuse.

Critics of transformative justice are often alarmed by the conception that transformative practices in cases of violence “can often emphasize the needs of the offender rather than the needs of the victim.” These kinds of concerns–the argument that only incarceration or even death can help survivors of extreme violence achieve a sense of justice–are often debated in advocacy for and against the death penalty. Critics of transformative justice argue that only the criminal justice system can achieve justice for survivors.

Transformative justice advocates respond by highlighting the extreme depths of injustice that the criminal justice system currently produces: because the criminal justice system targets individuals and communities of color for state violence and mass incarceration, advocates argue, this system by nature cannot protect or bring justice to already marginalized peoples. Therefore, any solution sponsored by the criminal justice system specifically, and the state more generally, cannot help but to reinscribe injustice. In order to avoid this, transformative justice practitioners work outside of the criminal justice system.

These advocates further argue that even in situations in which people do turn to the criminal justice system for justice, it fails to achieve it. Not only have studies shown that third parties are more likely than directly affected parties to seek retribution for non-violent crimes, but the retributive (punishment-based) criminal justice system has been shown over and over to fail survivors of violence. These individual failures, combined with systemic critiques, have spurred transformative justice advocates to practice alternatives to both incarceration and police involvement.

But does anyone actually practice transformative justice?

There are an abundance of transformative practices that many communities across the United States are using instead of relying on calling the police when violence occurs within communities. From Action Camps in Philadelphia that teach advocates to bolster their communities against child abuse to communities mobilizing around known instances of domestic violence to provide survivors with alternative places to stay, staying with the survivor in their own home to ensure that they are never alone and exposed to violence, etc.

The idea of transformative justice is that the state actually creates prime conditions for a great deal of violence, so communities refusing to ignore instances of violence by collectively holding perpetrators accountable and making help available to them can and has brought an end to a great deal of abuse within communities.

In addition to communities mobilizing into community-based watch networks as alternatives to calling cops, transformative justice can occur however specific individuals and communities deem fit for them. A principle tenet of transformative justice is community–no one community or individual can decide how others can or should respond to violence. Therefore, transformative justice advocates believe, as demonstrated in the audio clip below, that each community must determine for themselves which alternatives to the police are appropriate for them.

In one example of transformative justice principles being used in an effort to keep targeted communities safe without resorting to state intervention, the Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn queer of color youth collective Safe OUTside the System launched a campaign in 2007 in line with transformative justice principles and practices:

In 2007, the collective launched the Safe Neighborhood Campaign. Similar to the Dorchester Green Light Program of the 1970s, the campaign provides safe havens from sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and racist language, behaviour, and violence of all sorts. The campaign has three phases. In the first, neighbourhood public spaces such as restaurants, schools, churches, and businesses agree to visibly identify themselves as safe havens for those threatened with or fleeing from violence. In the second phase, the campaign incorporates an educational component to address some of the causes of anti-gay and anti-trans violence. Members of the campaign train the owners and employees… [on] ways to prevent violent without relying on law enforcement. In the third phase, Safe Space advocates recruit other community members and public figures into the campaign.

In ways that are formal–like these Safe OUTside the System’s effort–and informal, strategies of transformative justice are providing alternatives to the criminal justice system across the country.

Transforming criminal justice?

While transformative justice can be criticized for not offering a structured, consistent approach to providing alternatives to policing, transformative justice advocates continue to emphasize the importance of promoting truly individual and community-based alternatives–which vary with each circumstance–rather than attempting to dictate what is best for different communities. This is because ultimately, the priority of transformative justice advocates is not to transform the criminal justice system, but rather to work outside of it until it can be dismantled and rebuilt in a transformative way that does not continue to target already marginalized peoples.


Generation Five: Transformative Justice

Generation Five: Toward Transformative Justice

Huffington Post: Seeking Transformative Justice in Ferguson, Dearborn, and Beyond

Huffington Post: Criminalizing Victims: How the Punishment Economy Failed Marissa Alexander

Philly Stands Up!: Transformative Justice Anti-Sexual Assault Action Camp!

US Prison Culture: Thoughts About Community Support Around Intimate Violence

Safe OUTSide the System: The SOS Collective

Jennifer Polish
Jennifer Polish is an English PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center in NYC, where she studies non/human animals and the racialization of dis/ability in young adult literature. When she’s not yelling at the computer because Netflix is loading too slowly, she is editing her novel, doing activist-y things, running, or giving the computer a break and yelling at books instead. Contact Jennifer at



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