Transformative Justice, Explained

Via Teen Vogue | Kim Tran

In August, a nationwide campaign began in American prisons. Between August 21 and September 9, inmates across the country protested the inhumane treatment they regularly face. It could be one of the biggest prison protests to ever take place in the United States, where over 2 million people are in prison and 59% are either Black or Latinx.

America’s prison problem has been impacting more and more women. From the 1970s through 2014, the number of women behind bars grew 14 times over. These numbers are even more acute for queer people. In 2012, the [Williams Institute] ( found that 40% of the women in prison either self-identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) or reported a same-sex sexual experience.

Key factors are leading activists to transformative justice (TJ), including raising awareness around mass incarceration, unfair sentencing practices, racially motivated over-policing, and failure of American politicians to address sexual violence in a substantive way. Those in the TJ movement are working toward an approach that doesn’t depend on the unequal reach of the law for accountability.

Bianca Laureano teaches a private online class on how to facilitate accountability sessions and has been on all sides of TJ processes, as a harm-doer and person harmed. She tells Teen Vogue that TJ is first and foremost “an alternative to criminal incarceration.” Laureano says TJ is “An approach to divesting in disposability and thinking that people, just because we fail, that we automatically have to be removed from the community.”

Transformative justice is a way of addressing an individual act of harm that relies on community members instead of the police, the law, or the government (also known as the state). It is a response to the racism and gender-based oppression that shape life for many people of color. Though models differ, all reject the involvement of the criminal-justice system, choosing instead to rely on community support networks and mediators.

Micah Hobbes Frazier is one such mediator. He tells Teen Vogue that the bedrock of TJ is the belief that all people are valuable. “We need to hold people in their humanity and their possibility to transform even when they’ve done incredible amounts of violence,” he says.

In 2007, Frazier was a part of generationFIVE, an organization dedicated to answering the question, What will it take to end child sexual abuse within 100 years? Along with collaborators, he presented a report entitled “Toward Transformative Justice,” which provided a tentative answer to that question. It is one of the earliest public outlines of the increasingly popular principles and practices of community accountability and transformational social change.

There is no one-size-fits-all model for transformative justice, but Laureano says engaging with the emotions survivors experience when they first get hurt is key. The first step in TJ is having an experienced facilitator come in who can soothe the emotional responses that accompany being hurt or harmed. Facilitators ask victims specific close-ended specific questions like, “Can I touch you?”, “Do you need some water?”, “What happened?”, “What do you need right now?”, and “Do you need to leave this space?”

Laureano says if you’re thinking about facilitating a TJ process, it’s a good idea to come up with questions by getting introspective. “Think about the last time you felt that wave of heat move through your body, you felt your hands itch, and you wanted to harm someone or yourself, whatever, what would have helped you? What can help de-escalate that sensation?”

Assessment usually follows. In other words, facilitators talk to survivors for a long time about what unfolded and its consequences. Frazier says this part of the process is essential. It entails “getting as much information as possible about what’s happened, how did it happen, what was the impact of what happened and what is needed or wanted around accountability and transformation and healing,” he says. At this point, facilitators have a lot of conversations with the survivor about what occurred and what their desired outcome might be. They ask what the victim wants and needs from the TJ process as well as from the person who hurt them. Afterward, the facilitator, survivor, and person who hurt them have the option of a mediated conversation.

“Usually what it looks like is there’s a sharing that happens,” Frazier says. ”The survivor, or survivors, get to say not only what happened, but the impact it had on them and the community.”

In mediation, survivors convey the aftermath of whatever happened to them. This final step is arguably the most difficult. “There has to be the listening and acknowledgement, examination of how that happens and a commitment to do the work that’s needed, whatever that work is, to not engage in that violent behavior again,” Frazier says. Mediation is also a place for perpetrators, or harm-doers, to react. “We have to give space for the person to experience their rage in being identified as a perpetrator. That doesn’t mean that we’re not trusting, or believing, or supporting the person who’s been negatively impacted. We just have to honor all the feelings in the space,” Laureano says.

Laureano’s and Frazier’s dedication to allowing both survivors and those who have hurt them to stay in the same community is rooted in the fact that those who perpetrate harm frequently act out of systemic oppression. Frazier says they may “need to address the ways that patriarchy is showing up in their behavior, or homophobia.” Both believe that acting on internalized marginalization shouldn’t result in incarceration.

But those who have been involved in a TJ process know keeping communities intact is a lot easier said than done.

For people like Allison Kruk, finding a community solution that doesn’t depend on imprisonment is important. Kruk has experience tutoring inmates through the Petey Greene Program in New Jersey, an initiative providing “free, quality tutoring and related programming to support the academic achievement of incarcerated people.” She’s participated in actions that raise money for those who can’t afford to pay bail. Kruk tells Teen Vogue that she has seen the impact of poverty, mass incarceration, and police brutality on men inside, and she is committed to ending the system of American imprisonment.

Yet, when Kruk was allegedly raped by a stranger in May, she went to the police. After unsuccessfully attempting to confront her alleged assailant herself, she told a nearby police officer about the assault. Kruk says that despite her activism and understanding of how the state works against so many, she says she is a “product of this culture where we are taught that if you feel unsafe the police can intervene to make you feel… to ensure safety. But really, as a white person, I’ve been conditioned to think that.” Kruk’s experience illustrates the reality that transformative justice can be a tall and complex order.

In a lot of ways, Kruk’s story points out one of the major obstacles facing transformative justice: un-learning gut reactions — like calling the police — when emotions and stakes run high. Laureano says one of the difficulties of doing TJ is how human behavior shifts with trauma. “We can’t expect people to be able to drive a car or be able to call 911 or be able to say what’s happened to them,” she says. This is exactly where facilitators, victims, and even people who have done harm need to have the most patience. It’s also when tensions run the highest. Transformative justice requires conversation and slowing down, often when people are anxious for action.

Since going to the police, Kruk has struggled to extract her case from the criminal-justice system in Philadelphia. Following her assailant’s arrest, Kruk did some research into transformative justice. She then contacted the district attorney responsible for her case. “Originally my request was ’Can we talk a little bit more about transformative justice?’ I think my request has now moved to ‘I don’t want this person in prison, particularly because he can’t pay bail,’” Kruk says. In July, she found out that the district attorney offered him a plea deal that would not include jail time. In an email Kruk said she’s “still attempting to move forward with a transformative justice process but am not sure if he will sign on to it (yet).” The quick response Kruk received is rare. Generally, transformative justice moves slowly.

”Sometimes processes can take months, sometimes they can take years and it takes real capacity and commitment to be able to engage in that way and that is very different from just calling the police on someone and it’s done,” Frazier says.

With the national prison strike now over, the most important thing to remember about transformative justice is that it seeks to live by its name. It’s a community-driven process that aims to radically shift the state of violence and imprisonment in America. Like all things, change takes time.

Despite all odds, Frazier is optimistic. He says, “There’s an opportunity for healing not only for the survivor, but for the person who’s done harm and been violent, and the community at large.”

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