A Discussion with Jocelyn Simonson, Tracy McCarter, and Rachel Foran

October 18, 2023

Jocelyn Simonson, Tracy McCarter, and Rachel Foran

By design, criminal courts isolate people who are accused of causing harm. They are separated from their families, livelihoods, and communities by bars, by accusations, by labels, by rules and conditions, and by formal and informal sanctions. To the extent resources are offered, they are typically conditional and failure to comply results in harsh consequences. Prosecutions typically result in a narrow set of outcomes that may not redress the harm that was caused. But communities have begun to question this model, positing that while court processes purport to promote public safety, not all people are considered equal members of the public deserving of protection. Instead, court processes flatten complex situations, turning some people into victims and others into perpetrators within oppressive structures that target disproportionately poor people and people of color. And as one evocative example, too often people in dire need of resources and safety, including survivors of interpersonal violence or domestic abuse, may be prosecuted for defending themselves.

We were joined by Jocelyn Simonson, author of the recently published book Radical Acts of Justice: How Ordinary People Are Dismantling Mass Incarceration, as well as two of the organizers featured in case studies in the book, Tracy Renee McCarter and Rachel Foran. Tracy was prosecuted for surviving violence and became an abolitionist through her own fight for freedom, which you can read about in her recently published award-winning Truthout essay, and Rachel was a member of the #StandWithTracy defense campaign as well as a longtime abolitionist organizer who has worked with community bail funds, courtwatch programs, and Survived + Punished NY. We discussed the ways courts are ill-equipped to respond to harm when it happens and how community members and neighbors have joined together to build a different notion of community justice—including by leveraging courts’ own rules and processes as a jumping off point. What does it look like to build relationships rooted in mutuality and care within or in spite of the court environment? How do efforts to meet people’s needs rather than to isolate and contain create better outcomes for individuals and for community safety? And how does that process of organizing disrupt the narratives, power, and outcomes in criminal courts—transforming not only individuals’ relationships to one another but the way courts function in the present, while also building campaigns, strategies, and tactics to foster a future where conflict and harm are addressed outside of criminal courts?


Jocelyn Simonson is Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School and author of Radical Acts of Justice: How Ordinary People Are Dismantling Mass Incarceration. Her work has been cited by the Supreme Court and discussed in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and the Associated Press, and she has written for the New York Times, the Nation, n+1, the Washington Post, and others. She is a former public defender with the Bronx Defenders and is on the advisory board of the Institute to End Mass Incarceration. 

Tracy Renee McCarter is a mom to four amazing humans, a grandmother to two, a nurse, a daughter, a friend, and a lifetime member of Girl Scouts USA. She recently completed her master’s degree in nursing at Columbia University while simultaneously fighting for her freedom. She describes herself as a badass advocate who is no one’s victim.

Rachel Foran is an abolitionist organizer based in New York. She is the Organizing Director at Community Justice Exchange (CJE), organizes with Survived and Punished NY, and is a member of the #StandWithTracy defense team. Before joining CJE, Rachel was the Managing Director of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund and co-founded Court Watch NYC.

Moderated by Katy Naples-Mitchell, Program Director of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management.


The Abolitionist Politics, Practices, and Horizons  speaker series is organized by Katy Naples-Mitchell, Program Director of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, and  Sandra Susan Smith, Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice; Faculty Director, Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management; Director, Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy; Professor of Sociology; and Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute.