Restorative Justice in the Me Too Era

Every 92 seconds, someone in the U.S. experiences a sexual assault. For many survivors of sexual assault, it is almost impossible to see justice through the criminal courts — and justice comes at a price. 

Sexual assault may be a serious crime according to the penal code, but it’s not often treated that way within societal structures. And every day, social justice advocates uncover more evidence of this. In early 2019, it was estimated that nearly 250,000 rape kits never made it to the lab and were sitting on shelves across the country. What’s more, the number of untested rape kits doesn’t reflect the sheer volume of people who never report their assault. Researchers acknowledge that only 35% of rape or sexual assault cases ever make it to a police officer’s desk. Some say that number could be as low as 15.8%.

Sexual harassment is also a serious problem facing society at large. Even if people are now better at spotting things like workplace harassment and there are anti-discrimination laws, a survey found that 75% of harassment victims experienced retaliation after speaking up. Workplace harassment creates a poor work culture, which can among other things damage the reputations of both the company and its leadership.

The system isn’t working for sexual assault and harassment survivors, but it doesn’t need to be their only option. Restorative justice could offer a solution to seeking closure after sexual assault and harassment. The process may finally allow the millions of survivors to get the outcome they want and deserve — and it could shed a whole new light on the true scale of sex crimes in the U.S.

What is Restorative Justice?

For justice to occur after sexual violence, all parties involved need to have the space to speak openly. Using courts and the threat of prison and the sex offender registry automatically deny this because of the threat of punishment for anyone who admits to doing harm. What’s more, defendants hire lawyers whose job it is to use whatever admissible evidence is available to prevent a conviction, even if the evidence only re-victimizes the survivor.

Although these traditional types of justice could have benefits for survivors, the reality is that the judicial system does not see survivors and responsible persons but victims, perpetrators, and laws: it is the breaking of the law that must be punished.

Restorative justice offers a different model for seeking justice. It takes away the pomp and circumstance of the courtroom and the ego of the state and puts the survivor and their needs at the center of the process. This is the beauty of restorative justice for those who seek it: rather than putting the survivor on trial, it allows them to remain in control of their narrative.

It also involves the community in the healing, which has benefits both for small, tightly-knit community groups like families as well as with workplace communities. In the workplace, it’s important for leaders and management to not only condemn harassment but show support for those who experience it. When they use restorative justice in the workplace, the opportunity to do so is ingrained in the process. It protects leaders, assures the community that the behavior is not tolerated, and creates a work culture that values diversity and inclusion.

What Restorative Justice Looks Like in Practice

In the Me Too era, there are an increasing number of opportunities for survivors to share their stories. Organizations like Take Back the Night encourage survivors to share their experiences both publicly and through programs like sexual assault and harassment hotlines. 

Restorative justice follows a similar principle. It allows the survivor — the practice removes the term ‘victim’ from its vocabulary — to work with a facilitator to get the kind of justice they need. The practice gives survivors a chance to tell their story directly to the responsible party and in front of members of their community (usually close family members and friends). For some victims, it is hearing an admission from the responsible person — again, removing terms like offender — that they understand what happened was wrong and that they won’t do something like it again. 

In fact, these are the three core concepts of restorative justice. First, it seeks to repair the harm that the crime caused. However, it also acknowledges that crime leads to broken relationships that also makes further crime possible later. Third, it works to restore balance in relationships and enable responsible persons to transform their lives or ways of thinking to prevent something like this from happening again. For example, it can be a helpful tool in describing what consent is and how the responsible party’s actions fit into the definition of consent. The result can be arming everyone involved with a working definition that prevents further violations.

Ultimately, the practices involved in restorative justice aim to bring out the truth of the event and to build trust between the facilitator and the parties involved. It gives both parties the chance to ask questions, share their experiences, and get to the heart of the experiences that led to the shared experience that led them to a place of hurt. The stakes are lower because there is no threat of criminal justice, but at the same time, it provides a space for rehabilitation.

When Sorry Isn’t Enough

The combination of the stakes involved in the justice system with the participation of so many parties makes the courtroom a hostile place for survivors of sexual assault and harassment. Using restorative justice doesn’t take away from the severity of the offense, and for many, the legal system may still be their preferred method of getting justice.

What restorative justice does, however, is focus on personal and community reconciliation as much as rehabilitation. It focuses on the two narratives that matter most: the survivor and the responsible party. When it goes right, the responsible party not only acknowledges they did something that hurt someone but also understands it intimately and learns from it. And with community involvement, everyone can benefit.

Author Bio: Sam Bowman writes about people, tech, wellness and how they merge. He enjoys getting to utilize the internet for community without actually having to leave his house. In his spare time he likes running, reading, and combining the two in a run to his local bookstore.

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