Punishment Is Not Accountability

Orange background with a red origami bird flying free of bird cage with broken bar that is hanging by a white string. The words punishment does not equal accountability are in red on the left.

This piece is the first in the blog series, “Dreaming Up a More Liberated Future” which will explore how we (as a country, and as a movement to end gender-based violence) have prioritized expanding and strengthening punishing systems over helping strategies, the impact of those choices on survivors of trauma and their communities, and how we can do better.

In the United States, we have created a system of incarceration and punishment that is virtually incomparable to other countries. For example, in 2015, the U.S. held 5 percent of the world’s population, yet imprisoned a shocking near-25 percent of the world’s prisoners.[i] If the US prison population were a city, it would be among the country’s 10 largest.[ii] 

We unequivocally lead the world in incarcerating and punishing our own people. These astonishing numbers beg the question, however: with so many people entangled in the criminal legal system, are we as a country especially good at delivering accountability?

In this country, we often think accountability and punishment are interchangeable. We say, “that person needs to be held accountable for the violence they committed” when we mean, “that person needs to be punished,” but this is a mistake.

We must stop conflating these two ideas because accountability and punishment are not the same thing. Indeed, they actually rarely overlap. So, what do they mean, and what are the differences?

Accountability vs. punishment

Accountability is meant to stop harm from happening.

  • The process of accountability is founded on the premise that when a harm is done, the harm creates an obligation–to the person harmed, and often to others in a group or community.
  • Accountability builds connection by acknowledging the harm and its impact.
  • Accountability is often active and can be proactive; the one who committed harm can initiate the accountability process rather than waiting for a consequence to be imposed upon them.
  • The most effective accountability processes are voluntary and ongoing–they are more of a process than a single event.
  • The person or persons who were harmed are active participants in the accountability process along with the person who committed harm.

Punishment, on the other hand, is a way of enforcing rules.

  • Sometimes the process of punishment can be violent or shaming. In this way, punishment can sometimes be a continuation of harm.
  • It is usually coerced; most people don’t volunteer to be punished.
  • The type of punishment may or may not be decided in consultation with the “victim”.
  • Whether it’s a time out, or a suspension, or being expelled, or incarcerated, punishment is often isolating; it involves being removed from one’s community.
  • As Danielle Sered of Common Justice points out, being punished only requires that a person endure the suffering imposed upon them. It is passive. To complete punishment, one must only not escape. It requires neither agency nor dignity, nor does it require work.
  • The issue of repair and restoration is rarely if ever addressed in punishment; the focus is on retribution, rather than repair or healing.

Punishment is steeped in either/or thinking: one is either guilty or innocent, a perpetrator or a victim. To explore and find alternatives to punishment, we must move away from simple binaries and acknowledge that all of us both commit and suffer harm at some point in our lives.

Teal green background with red headline letters that say Punishment on the left versus Accountability on the right. Below each title word is a bullet-pointed list of what constitutes punishment versus what constitutes accountability.

Accountability requires five key elements[iii] 

  • acknowledging one’s responsibility for one’s actions;
  • acknowledging the impact of one’s actions on others;
  • expressing genuine remorse;
  • taking actions to repair the harm to the degree possible; and
  • no longer committing similar harm.

In this country, we have built a vast array of punishing systems–from school suspensions to incarceration to the death penalty–yet punishing systems rarely if ever deliver accountability, as defined above.

On the contrary, punishing systems impede accountability by forcing the person who causes harm (often literally called the “defendant”) to defend, deny, and deflect, rather than take responsibility and acknowledge the impact of their actions. A defendant is successful in the court system if they prove their innocence, rather than take responsibility.

In addition to punishing systems failing to deliver accountability, many survivors tell us that they either choose not to engage with punishing systems or are harmed by them when they do engage. Take the criminal legal system, for example: a small portion of survivors have felt safer after using the criminal legal system, but as advocates, we’ve witnessed too many survivors who have been re-traumatized by using it. Despite this knowledge, for decades the movement to end gender-based violence has invested significantly in this system, and we continue to do so.

Nearly everyone who commits violence has also survived it. Yet the survivor/perpetrator binary (dividing people into either “survivors” or “perpetrators”) continues to pervade our movement, as though people who commit violence aren’t both…and weren’t survivors first.

When we invest in carceral systems that we know create more trauma survivors and fight for harsher penalties in the name of “victim safety”, our actions communicate that only certain types of survivors are worth protecting.

It’s time to ask ourselves some hard questions:

  • If our movement is, at its core an “anti-violence” movement, why are we choosing incarceration—a system of punishment which produces violence and suffering—as a primary response to violence?
  • How has our movement’s investment in policing and incarceration benefitted survivors (and which survivors)? How has it not?
Large blue-purple flowers in the background with white letter text that says, nearly everyone who commits violence has also survived it.

Earlier this year, the Action Alliance joined 44 other sexual and domestic violence coalitions in signing on to the national “Moment of Truth” statement, which outlines the ways in which our movement has failed Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) survivors, leaders, organizations, and movements, and offers a call to action to pivot toward investing in solutions that protect and heal individuals and communities. It calls us to create a future where “all human beings have inherent value, even when they cause harm” and “people have what they need – adequate and nutritious food, housing, quality education and healthcare, meaningful work, and time with family and friends”.[iv]

We can do this by redefining “public safety” as approaches that support and nurture healthy communities and investing in community-based solutions that offer care and protection to our most vulnerable community members. Transformative justice practices use community-based strategies to respond to and prevent harm and exist outside of punishing systems like the criminal legal system.

We can do this by letting go of the myth that punishing systems are a “solution” to violence.

We can also do this by turning toward accountability, making clear its distinction from punishment, and learning as we go.

Mia Mingus, a writer, public speaker, community educator and organizer working for disability justice and transformative justice, leaves us with these important musings about accountability and its promise:

 “What if accountability wasn’t rooted in punishment, revenge or superficiality, but rooted in our values, growth, transformation, healing, freedom, and liberation?

What if the work of accountability was held as so supremely sacred, that people who got to practice it—truly practice it—were considered lucky and those who had the honor of supporting it and witnessing it were also changed for the better from its power?” 

Mia Mingus

Friends, how would our work be transformed for the better if we did this?

Kate McCord is Associate Director of the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance and has been active in the work to end gender-based violence for 30 years.

Register here for the Action Alliance Membership Event: Exploring Accountability in the Context of Sexual and Intimate Partner Violence

Wednesday, January 13, 2021, 2pm-4pm

 How do our notions of “justice” change when we bring an expansive view to how communities can offer a wide range of options for accountability in response to violence, harm or abuse? Join other Action Alliance members as we engage in discussion and out of the box thinking about possibilities for new ways to think about accountability and justice. 


[i] https://www.guilfordian.com/worldnation/2018/12/07/consequences-of-u-s-mass-incarceration/

[ii] https://www.cnn.com/2018/06/28/us/mass-incarceration-five-key-facts/index.html

[iii] https://www.commonjustice.org/accounting_for_violence#:~:text=Common%20Justice%E2%80%99s%20report%2C%20Accounting%20for%20Violence%3A%20How%20to,survivor-centered%2C%20based%20on%20accountability%2C%20safety-driven%2C%20and%20racially%20equitable.

[iv] https://allianceinaction.org/2020/07/10/vsdvaaaffirmsmomentoftruth/

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