Restorative justice is an alternative response to violence, which better serves survivors, improves community safety and avoids overreliance on harmful systems of punishment.
The authors of the Op-Ed on restorative justice [“Restorative justice may help, but let’s not forget victims,” April 27, Opinion] express concern about recent efforts by King County prosecutors to address crime through alternative processes based on restorative-justice principles. They urged prosecutors to stay faithful to traditional approaches. Their recommendation is misguided, as the conventional response to crime does not serve survivors well, causes additional harm, and ultimately reproduces violence and inequality.
The authors contend that continued support for alternative approaches to crime is emblematic of a worrisome tendency to focus on those who cause harm rather than those who experience it. They also suggest that victims do not support alternatives to prison or want to participate in the process of restorative justice. These claims are unfounded.
The primary purpose of restorative justice is to facilitate the healing of all impacted parties. Research shows that many crime survivors favor such alternatives. A recent national survey, for example, found that 70 percent of crime survivors favor non-prison based ways of holding people accountable. Similarly, many survivors do elect to participate in restorative justice alternatives where they exist, and the majority of those who do are highly satisfied with the process and outcome. Studies also indicate that these processes are more effective in preventing future harm than conventional criminal-justice responses.
The authors emphasize how difficult it is for survivors to go through traditional court processes yet nonetheless oppose alternatives to them. This is puzzling, as the typical criminal-justice approach does not serve survivors well. The majority of victims — especially survivors of color — do not receive the services they need. Moreover, many are dissatisfied with the process and report that it amplifies their psychological distress. Some studies even find that newly created opportunities for victim participation in the conventional criminal-justice process may exacerbate survivors’ trauma.
Research on domestic and sexual violence clearly reveals these limitations. A recent survey found that one in three domestic violence survivors who called the police felt less safe afterward, and 43 percent felt the police had discriminated against them. Immigrant survivors of violence with limited English are too often punished and further traumatized when they seek help.
“In our experience, most victims do want offenders to have the opportunity for rehabilitation. We simply do not hear from victims that they favor rehabilitation instead of conviction, punishment or incarceration for the crime.” Read a differing opinion on restorative justice at st.news/restorative-justice-balance
Survivors should absolutely engage in court processes if they so choose, but restorative-justice alternatives expand the range of options. “Survivors in our community have varied experiences that require a diversity of responses,” according to Merril Cousin, executive director of the Coalition Ending Gender-Based Violence.
Moreover, failure to pursue alternative responses to violence will maintain reliance on overcrowded and often inhumane prisons and jails that cause additional trauma. The U.S. incarceration rate is now among the highest in the world. Like interpersonal violence, mass incarceration disproportionately impacts young and poor people, particularly those of color. Its negative consequences for individuals, families and communities have been amply documented.
The successful implementation of many restorative justice processes shows that we need not choose between addressing survivors’ needs and holding those who cause harm accountable. The idea that we must focus either on survivors or on those who cause harm is also misleading because many of those who commit crimes are themselves crime victims. In such cases, addressing the trauma of those who have both caused and experienced harm is crucial. The best restorative approaches do just this. For example, Common Justice, a victim-services organization in Brooklyn, also draws on restorative-justice principles to hold those who cause harm accountable while simultaneously addressing the circumstances that led to their harmful behavior — and keeping them out of prison.
Efforts to develop and implement alternative responses to violence that better serve survivors, improve community safety and avoid overreliance on harmful systems of punishment are to be applauded. The alternative is to pretend that the conventional criminal-justice response to crime meets survivors’ needs and effectively reduces violence. Neither is true. Let’s work together to give thoughtful, well-implemented and community alternatives based on restorative and transformative-justice principles a try.