For Sexual Assault Survivors, Restorative Justice May Offer An Alternative To A Broken System

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In cultural discussions of sexual assault and dating violence, we often focus exclusively on blame and punishment (both for the perpetrator and the survivor) — so much so that we often lose sight of the fact that many survivors don't report their assaults, for reasons that range from fear of being re-traumatized by the legal process to a system that sticks sexual assault survivors with a burden of proof far beyond that applied to any other crime.

These conversations also leave out another element: the wave of trauma that can be left behind within a community after an assault. While most of our discussion of assault assumes that the only people involved are the survivor and the perpetrator, and perhaps their immediate families, this attitude is disconnected from the reality of the experience. When one member of a community is traumatized, the entire community — whether it's familial, on campus, or another tight-knit community — lives in that trauma. Because we are all impacted by our environment, trauma can manifest itself deep in the community by promoting fear, changing how we interact with each other, and increasing concerns of safety for ourselves and our loved ones. When trauma from sexual assault is left to fester, communities subconsciously build a tolerance for violence that can take on a life of its own.  

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The aftermath of rape largely affects the survivor's emotional and physical state, and restoration often becomes the responsibility of the survivor; looking at cases in my own community, I see women putting back the pieces of their lives in a community that lacks the tools to support survivors and share the burden of that trauma. According to the National Institute of Justice, most rape victims know their attacker. Having to face your attacker on a daily basis at school, in your neighborhood, or at work, while watching your peers continue to engage with your attacker, can bring additional trauma. Not only does this continued trauma wreak havoc on the mental state of the survivor, it creates a rape-tolerant environment that makes it harder for victims to report, and harder to hold criminals accountable for their actions.

One approach to this trauma is a process that puts an emphasis on the victim’s needs from the community in order to help the individual and community to heal together: it's a system called "restorative justice" that has strong potential to benefit all parties involved in sexually violent crimes.

Restorative Justice, or RJ as it’s often referred to as, is a relatively new approach being adopted in the criminal justice system; however, the focal point of this justice isn’t on criminal punishment, but on rehabilitating offenders using victim and community engagement. The process has significant potential in decreasing the likelihood of repeat offending through anger management, sex offender classes, and/or substance abuse therapy. Since RJ functions without criminal intervention for communities that are seeking alternative justice, the practice is largely used for first-time offenders and/or non-violent crimes, according to former Re-entry Manager for the city of Lowell, Mass., Tracey Jackson. (Full disclosure, she's my sister — social justice runs in our family.)

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I am both a survivor and an advocate serving victims and survivors of sexual assault and partner violence. For over a decade, I have been part of a unique community that tirelessly fights what often appears as an uphill battle to end rape culture and sexual violence. Through national organizations like RAINN and community organizations like Raphael House, the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, and Day One, I’ve been able to wear many hats in the community, from working hotline services to helping women transition into their new life after leaving an abusive relationship. If I had access to the resources and services I promote, my own healing process would have been significantly more bearable.

Recently, my interests have naturally pointed me in the direction of prevention, and restorative justice gives me hope that rehabilitation can prevent repeat offenders, while also restoring wholeness in survivors. I can’t help but wonder how different things could’ve been if this practice existed when I was in college, and I can’t help but wonder how much safer I would feel if this practice was put into place in my own neighborhood.

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The practice of restorative justice in sexual assault cases has taken place for well over a decade, and it can happen in a number of ways with a mediator or lawyer specializing in restorative justice. Perhaps, the most important distinction between RJ and the criminal justice process is that RJ tailors the process to fit the needs of the victim and his or her community while the criminal justice process focuses on the specific crime, without acknowledging that each offender and victim is different. Needless to say, the RJ process for sexual assault cases will vary because the foundation is built around individualizing the needs of the survivor and offender. Another unique, often valuable part of RJ, is that victims of sexual assault are able to confront their attacker without being confined to judicial limitations. While the RJ process may look different for each survivor and offender, extensive preparation is often needed before meetings take place to ensure emotional and physical safety as well as the offender's commitment and fulfillment of treatment or material reparation. The people involved may vary as well, depending on the community, but community leaders, teachers, family members, and peers are often included. Again, this is something that hinders on the needs of the survivor.

As explained on the website of the Center for Justice and Reconciliation, this system is beginning to be more common practice in schools around the country. Recent studies are beginning to show that  RJ can work for victims of sexual assault as well. By encouraging members of a community to heal as well, it provides a trauma-informed environment for survivors as well as promoting rehabilitation for the offender, which can alleviate fear within the community and repeat offenses.

While in the past, I may have been first to chant “Lock him up” at someone who has committed a crime of partner violence or sexual assault, I have reached a place of sad reality. The overall recidivism rate for offenders is almost 40 percent according to two studies on the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking. When you consider that with the fact that only one out of three sexual assaults will be reported, it’s easy to see why alternatives to the current criminal justice system are an urgent necessity for many survivors and their communities.

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Let’s talk about those communities, though — because as you may already know, each community is different from the next, and that means their needs can vastly differ from one and other. Communities of color and immigrant communities often aren’t exactly running towards the cops, even when a crime is committed. Black people, who experience more crime than any other racial group, are far less likely to go to the police. Immigrants are less likely to report crimes, particularly of domestic abuse, according to the National Justice Institute. There are a plethora of reasons why this may be, but keep in mind today’s political climate and the racially skewed re-victimization of victims within this community, and one can imagine how restorative justice can profoundly limit the effects of trauma for everyone involved.

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After the chance to engage within my own community of advocates during a restorative justice training where we focused on community building and a shared concept that victims and offenders have their own unique background and needs, I was filled with hope for my own community and survivors everywhere, but I had to stay grounded. As this article posted on Restorative Justice International points out, the only way RJ can be effective and empowering is when the survivor chooses restorative justice. While I believe RJ should be an option for most crimes, I, like many RJ supporters, believe that the decision should be left solely up to the survivor in sexual assault cases to avoid re-traumatization and re-victimization. Some victims may feel that legal action is the best way to restore wholeness for his or herself, and only they can make that decision.

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More importantly, the practice of RJ for sexual assault is based on the needs of the survivor first: the question that echoed in the room during my training was, “What do you need to feel whole again?” Perhaps feeling whole means putting the perpetrator behind bars, which can be done only through the criminal justice system, and it may be the only justice that survivor can receive to start his or her healing process. But for some, confronting one's rapist can be a restorative experience on its own. Joanne Nedding explains in The Guardian that confronting her rapist through restorative justice practices left her with more solace than the original court case, because, unlike in criminal proceedings, the liaison allowed a much needed conversation between herself and her rapist: "I remember being told that he would meet me and I burst into tears...if he'd said no, that would have been it for me. I don't think I would have ever got closure."  

How, you may ask, could there be justice without prison? Well, for one thing the amenities of state and federal penitentiaries don’t always include vital therapy for new or young offenders. Rehabilitation isn't always offered within our prison system — in fact, psychological treatment offered in some states for sex offenders often comes under fire because of the large expense; preventative programs for sex offenders often garner little support from the general public due to a lack of understanding about the rehabilitation process. Each offender, despite how similar the crime may be, will have their own environmental and psychological factors unique to themselves which means there isn't a one size fits all when it comes to rehabilitation. Many studies show that learned behavior from environment, anger issues, and lack of awareness about the trauma of sexual violence is found in younger perpetrators, and can be treated through therapy. Without rehabilitation programs in prison, jail time can become a waste of time for young people who are going to be released back into an abusive family or community continuing the cycle of abuse. For many advocates and survivors that I’ve worked with, a better solution would be for rehabilitation and punishment to work alongside each other, but that’s not always the case.

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We all have different ideas of what justice means to us, and have different needs that make us whole: In some situations, the criminal justice system is fair and restores wholeness for the victim and their family, but for many young people attending college or high school, the criminal justice system and schools often have failed to serve justice to rape victims and protect the young community. Sometimes, it’s not just institutions that continue the harm within the community; there have been cases of students experiencing cyber bullying when their rapists were charged. Not only is this incredibly damaging to the victim, it also promotes future sexually violent acts and can make it more difficult for students to report sexual assault to officials of any kind. Without engaging our peers in the discussion, we risk sending survivors back into a hostile environment, rather than getting the community involved in the healing process.

Now is the time to start engaging new voices in prevention, and remind survivors that they have choices. I will never stop fighting to continue to make those choices easier, and I will never stop fighting for us to live in a world without sexual violence. Restorative justice may not be the answer for every victim of sexual assault, but it certainly sets the foundation for healing and prevention. I only hope our criminal justice system catches on.

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