Restorative Justice and Sexualized Violence – New Conversations Emerging

Last month, I attended the Ending Violence Association of British Columbia’s (EVA BC’s) annual forum, “Supporting Survivors Across the Years.” I have worked alongside the Victim Services sector for almost a decade, so there were many familiar faces. But the conversations have changed. When I introduce myself, saying, “Hi, I’m Catherine and a lot of my focus is on restorative justice,” I am no longer experiencing the faint scowl and slowly backing away (which certainly has been a justifiable response to restorative justice, more on that below). Instead, fellow attendees’ eyes are lighting up and I hear responses such as “Oh I am really hoping we can get more restorative justice going. Survivors are really asking for those kinds of options!”

What has changed in the last decade to create an openness from the anti-violence sector (those supporting survivors of gender-based violence) toward restorative justice process? Afterall, the needs of survivors have remained relatively constant: Survivors need to be heard, to be believed and supported, to have a voice, to have control, to experience meaningful justice and, to get as much information as possible around their options. My take on the emerging openness towards restorative justice involves the weighing of the risks and benefits of restorative justice, and how that reckoning is working out.

For those new to the term, definitions and conceptions of restorative justice vary. A definition that I like is (a slightly adapted version) from Howard Zehr: “Restorative justice is a [an approach to justice] that involves, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offence and to collectively identify and address harms, needs and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible.” Despite this seemingly reasonable definition, the risks of engaging with the restorative justice sector and its advocates/practitioners have been significant for those supporting survivors of gender-based violence, including sexualized violence. Since its popular Western manifestation emerged in the 1970s, the field of restorative justice has been fraught with accusations of being offender focused, of “using” survivors to help rehabilitate the offender, of being tone-deaf toward power imbalances, of pressuring survivors to participate, reconcile or even forgive, and of practitioners being inadequately trained – just to name a few. Is it any wonder that sensible survivor-support persons would back away from the likes of me at an anti-violence conference? In short, restorative justice has had a terrible reputation among the victim/survivor and victim-serving sector for decades, and that reputation has not been entirely misplaced. There are many reasons for this, and if you would like to learn more, I would direct you to this 2002 perspective by EVA BC. Furthermore, restorative justice processes have become popularly equated with “diversion”—often translating to “letting offenders off the hook.” In other words, diversion can be seen by some as an emblem of what the criminal justice system does not value or take seriously.

On the other hand, restorative justice has also earned a reputation in some spheres of having transformative potential in the aftermath of criminal harm; of meeting the needs of survivors who felt they otherwise had no voice, of making space for survivors to receive needed restitution and/or expressions of genuine remorse coupled with sustained action on the part of those who offend. Restorative justice, approached with proper care and skill, can represent an avenue for trauma-informed and dignified justice that is known by so many survivors to be lacking in the conventional justice response. In addition, restorative justice programing is not restricted to diversion cases, but can be an option at any point in the criminal justice system. So, how would a newcomer to restorative justice know what to believe? Understandably, those supporting survivors of sexual assault would weigh heavily the warnings of poor practice and orientation towards offender rehabilitation.

All that said, social movements over the years—including the #MeToo movement—have spotlighted the extent to which victims/survivors are fed up with the lack of accountability expected of perpetrators of sexualized violence. They are sick of not being believed, and, when charges do go ahead, being revictimized and retraumatized by the mainstream system. The criminal justice system has let survivors of sexualized violence down in a huge way. So huge, that some survivors want nothing to do with the criminal justice system, even if it means not reporting (a reality which, of course, predates #MeToo). Accordingly, voices of survivors, particularly survivors belonging to marginalized groups, are rising up to ask for other options—options where their voices can be heard, where they can be supported, and—hope upon hope—where they can witness the person responsible taking meaningful accountability. Most survivors want to see justice, yet not necessarily through the conventional criminal justice system.

Enter the promise and peril of restorative justice. What would it take for restorative justice to take responsibility for its ill reputation as being overly-focused on offender rehabilitation and as a tool for “reconciliation?” What would it take for restorative justice to fulfill its potential and provide responsive, trauma-informed and empowering services for survivors while supporting perpetrators to be meaningfully accountable? The good news is some restorative justice programs have moved or are moving in that direction. I think these are the programs that the anti-violence sector are beginning to encounter which are changing the conversation. The features you will notice with such programs and processes include:

  • extensive training for restorative justice practitioners on the dynamics of sexualized violence;
  • credible commitment and action toward working alongside with, and with leadership from, anti-violence groups;
  • providing a great deal of up-front listening, support, compassion and information for any survivors coming in contact with the program;
  • offering victim/survivors options beyond face-to-face dialogue for dealing with the crime that was committed against them (no “cookie-cutter” processes)
  • if an encounter is desired, providing survivors with choice and control in designing the process;
  • working alongside support people and including them in the process; and,
  • working separately and thoroughly with the offender to determine what responsibility looks like, how to listen, and how to take accountability.

This list is not exhaustive. But it does serve to point towards the hallmarks of restorative justice programs committed to serving survivors of sexualized violence.

Overall, the restorative justice movement has a long way to go toward fulfilling its considerable promises for survivors. However, the potential is there, and the need is too great to ignore. Survivors need options—viable and accessible options that foster wellbeing and recovery. Partnerships involving the anti-violence movement and restorative justice programs are on the rise toward this greater good. I look forward to the next time I’m at a conference and can confidently say: “Hi, I’m Catherine, I focus on restorative justice –how can we work together to best serve survivors?”

For further reading on better serving victim/survivors of crime within restorative justice, please see:
“Serving Crime Victims Through Restorative Justice”
“Crime Victims’ Experiences of Restorative Justice: A Listening Project”

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