“Restorative justice is often a very good way to deal with crime, and it’s a method that any criminal justice system could benefit from using. But it’s not appropriate in every case – and it’s especially troubling to see it used in domestic violence cases.
Thanks to a long feature in last weekend’s New York Times Magazine, the concept of restorative justice is getting some much-needed attention. The practise is centered on the idea that justice should involve restoration and healing, instead of simply punishment.
The US has the largest prison system in the world, and we institute some of the harshest and longest punishments. Rather than seeing crime as a wrong committed against the state, the restorative justice model positions crime as an act committed against an individual and a community. Instead of simply meting out a punishment for the crime, the restorative justice model works with the victim, the community and the perpetrator to assess the damage done and come to an agreement on how the victim and community can be made whole.
It’s not a widely-used process, but it’s a good one. The victim’s needs are centered; the perpetrator doesn’t get the vindication of feeling victimized and there’s an accountability aspect and a personalization of the crime that seems to lead to lower recidivism rates. It would be wonderful to see restorative justice used more widely in addressing non-violent crime.
But violent crime – and, particularly, intimate partner violence – is another story. While it’s certainly not impossible to use a restorative justice model for those crimes, it’s trickier territory.
Intimate partner violence is often “forgiven” by the victim, and whitewashed by the community, especially if the perpetrator is regarded as a “good guy”. Domestic abusers tend to be serially violent toward their partners, tend to escalate their assaults and tend to be manipulative. While most people profess disgust at domestic violence, in reality, abuse victims are often pressured to work on the relationship or told they must have done something to provoke the abuse.
Outsiders and even loved ones see the violence as a personal problem, not a crime. And domestic abuse is complicated by the fact that the victim often loves the perpetrator, often feels a sense of loyalty toward him, and is easily persuaded that he is indeed a good guy who just made a mistake, or has an anger problem, or simply loves her too much.
Restorative justice, like anything else, operates in an imperfect society and is carried out by imperfect actors. A community’s own ideas about a crime like domestic violence will naturally influence the process.
The Times story illustrates this point well. The victim, a young woman named Ann Grosmaire, was shot in the head by her boyfriend Conor McBride, while she was on her knees begging for her life. Conor had hit her several times before finally killing her. According to McBride’s version of events – we don’t have Grosmaire’s, because she’s dead – the two had been fighting for an extended period, and he got out the gun to either use on himself or to scare her. But he ended up shooting her.
He left her for dead, drove around for a while, and then turned himself into police. It turned out she wasn’t dead, and Ann was on life support for a while before her parents decided there was no hope and took her off the machines. But before she died, her father – a religious Catholic – claims he heard her voice speak to him, asking him to forgive McBride. The Grosmaires went on a journey to try to repair the damage to their family, and to forgive McBride, while also seeking justice. To do that, they convinced the Florida prosecutor assigned to the case to allow them to use some restorative justice models in deciding a sentence.
The Grosmaires sat down with McBride, his family, a restorative justice lawyer, the prosecutor and a visual representation of Ann. Each party spoke about how the crime affected them, and about Ann. Conor McBride had to tell the story of exactly how he killed her, and had to hear her parents explain the soul-crushing anguish they felt as a result of his actions. And then, the group discussed what they thought should be the appropriate punishment.
The Grosmaires considered that somewhere between 10 and 15 years seemed fair. The prosecutor gave Conor 20. All in all, it seems like a process the parties were pleased with, which even an outsider could say seems fair.
It’s a redemptive and inspirational story. Like many readers, I was impressed with the Grosmaires’ goodness and generosity, and with restorative justice attorney Sujatha Baliga’s clear-mindedness in pursuing this exceptional path to finding personal peace and seeking justice through her work.
But what would have happened if this model weren’t used in a murder, but in a domestic assault?
We know that Ann’s parents think Conor is a “good guy” – they think that even after he killed their daughter. We know they care about him and wanted the relationship between him and Ann to work out. We know they believe strongly in forgiveness and transcendence.
Restorative justice is centered on a victim’s needs, without turning perpetrators into pariahs. That’s good and important. But in a society that sees domestic violence as an interpersonal dispute, and in a community and family that sees an abuser as a good guy and an abusive relationship as one worth fixing, does a victim like Ann stand a chance at getting justice?
Does she have the support to get what she really needs – which is to get away from her abuser, and to have her community and her society take seriously acts of violence against her?
I don’t think so: not in the situation the Times article illustrated, and not in many domestic violence cases. As someone who believes in prison reform, social justice and human rights, I believe deeply and strongly that people are capable of radical, transformative change. I believe restorative justice can, in many circumstances, help to set that kind of change in motion.
But radical, transformative change can’t come on the backs of victims of violence; it can’t come at the expense of their safety or their mental health or their sense of security in their own communities. The radical, transformative change that makes a formerly violent person – especially a person who was repeatedly violent toward someone they claimed to love – nonviolent is a long process that requires accountability from the perpetrator and an understanding that some things may be unforgivable, and that true change does not hinge on or require forgiveness from others.
Transformative change is more than an apology, and it’s more than taking steps to repair the damage done. It’s a recognition that some damage is irreparable, that one must be be contrite even if forgiveness never comes, and that one’s change is only real so long as one makes it so for the rest of one’s days.
That’s a tall order. In some ways, jail is easier.
If you steal someone’s bike or sell drugs on someone’s block, there are ways to repay them for your offense. Certainly, feelings of safety and security are violated, but the damage is usually fixable. But if you take the most intimate of all relationships and you pervert love into violence, you damage a person’s physical body in addition to their sense of trust and their right to believe that love shouldn’t come with a fist to the face.
When the stakes are that high, the victim’s needs and a bright-line rule that intimate partner violence is socially unacceptable must be prioritized. A community’s vision of domestic violence in a society where domestic violence already isn’t taken seriously enough can undermine that.
Restorative justice should be applied more widely and supported more broadly; and in a more evolved society, I’d love to see it applied to domestic violence. But we don’t live in that society quite yet. And constructing intimate violence as something not only forgivable, but as something that should be forgiven, isn’t radical; it’s a common belief.
Until that changes, I don’t trust community-based justice for domestic violence victims – any more than I trust an individual abuser.”
How much do gender, racial, and wealth inequalities impact restorative justice in practice? Should Restorative Justice be off-limits for some crimes?