RJ is on the rise: What this means for domestic violence intervention

“Restorative Justice is on the rise exponentially in the United States” asserts New York Times contributor Molly Rowan Leach. In her coverage of The National Conference on Restorative Justice, Leach writes:

As millions continue to experience and witness a collective 'justice' that is tainted by racial discrimination, by billions in profit, by the warehousing of our meek, a school-to-prison pipeline and by the practices of expecting punishment and isolation for all involved when crime occurs to actually function as rehabilitative, there is a form in the air, in the political, in the grassroots, in the hearts of the people, that offers a viable life-ring out of this deluge.

Leach's reporting on the fundamental principles of RJ and on the positive outcomes observed thus far in youth diversion programs, offers important insight into the use of RJ for other types of crimes, including domestic violence (DV).

The controversy over using RJ in DV cases is highlighted in tragic murder of Ann Grosmarie.

Following Ann’s death, her parents chose to use RJ conferencing during the sentencing phase of their daughter’s trial. Many reacted to the parent’s decision to forgive their daughter’s killer with confusion; some with anger and disgust. Writing on the case and subsequent criminal trial, Jill Filipovic of The Guardian had this to say about RJ and DV:

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.

Firstly, I disagree that domestic violence is widely viewed as forgivable in our society. Due in large part to the efforts of anti-violence activists, DV is no longer widely viewed as a personal problem. For example, every state in the U.S now recognizes DV as a crime in their penal codes. Many states—including New York—have mandatory arrest policies and victimless prosecution. Policies such as these have forced law enforcement officials to make an arrest when responding to a DV call and have enabled the courts to prosecute DV offenders even when the victim refuses to cooperate. In addition to specialized DV courts, domestic violence units within police departments are also common. What this suggests is that society’s views about the acceptability of DV have in fact changed. DV is not viewed as a personal matter which can be resolved through forgiveness—it is a crime against the state, punishable by jail time or mandated mental health treatment.

Secondly, restorative justice is not solely about forgiveness. It is about healing, and this process may or may not include forgiveness on the part of the victim(s). The assumption that a victim would be expected or forced to forgive their abuser is far from the truth when it comes to RJ. As Leach points out in her piece, RJ is fundamentally about accountability on the part of the offender and healing on the part of the victim. For Ann’s parents, forgiveness was in fact central to their ability to heal after their daughter’s murder. This decision though is ultimately up to those who have been harmed. Suggesting that a victim should not forgive their abuser is as contrary to feminist ideals as suggesting that they should.

Lastly, we do live in an imperfect society where violence is rampant and acceptance of DV still exists to a degree. But, survivors of DV and those who work in the field should not wait until sexism, racism, and classism no longer inform our understanding of and our responses to violence before taking action. With traditional methods of DV intervention showing mixed results with regards to recidivism (Feder & Wilson, 2005 and Babcock, Green & Robbie, 2004), it is crucial that advocates and professionals within the field of DV continue to develop new methods for combating incidents of violence. Restorative justice, while controversial to some, offers victims and their families the opportunity to heal and to end the violence which has devastated the lives of so many individuals, it empowers victims to make healthy decisions about the future of their relationships, and it holds DV offenders accountable for their actions while providing them the opportunity to change destructive patterns of behavior.