The use of restorative justice (RJ) as an alternative to current criminal justice practices is gaining widespread support in the United States and across the world. This support however is limited as it is believed that RJ practices are best suited to address a narrow set of offenses and offenders – namely, non-violent property crimes often involving adolescents. The use of RJ in response to violent offenses – particularly violence between intimate partners or family members– is viewed skeptically. We here at the Center for Violence and Recovery feel that much of this skepticism is rooted in misconceptions, and the following is an attempt to address some of the most common concerns we have come across in using RJ in instances of domestic violence (DV).
MYTH: RJ would put victims at increased risk for experiencing more violence
There is no evidence that RJ puts DV victims at a greater risk for re-experiencing violence. Early research on the use of batterer intervention programs (BIP) – the current treatment option for batterers who enter the criminal justice system – initially revealed a decline in the rate of reoffending among those mandated to complete treatment. The most widely used BIP in the nation, commonly referred to as the Duluth Model, was influenced by traditional notions of DV. Such notions include the assumption that victims are always women, and batterers are always men. Today, batterer intervention programs are open to all DV offenders–including women, adult children, and older siblings. However, this model still focuses treatment on challenging the sexist beliefs of the offender in order to prevent future acts of violence. Recent research has shown, contrary to initial studies of the model, that individuals mandated to a BIP reoffend at the same rate as those not mandated to complete treatment (Stover, Meadows & Kaufman, 2009 ; Feder & Wilson, 2005). In fact, the use of BIPs may actually put women at greater risk of experiencing harm as they have been found to be less likely to contact the police when future incidents of violence occur (Feder & Dugan, 2004)
The Center on Violence and Recovery (CVR) has challenged the assumptions and efficacy of traditional BIPs and endeavored to find a safe and effective alternative treatment for those convicted of DV offenses. In response to victims’ desire to participate in treatment with their partners as well as judges’ desire to mandate offenders to a more effective treatment program, the CVR has developed a restorative justice option for DV offenders sentenced to treatment called Circles of Peace (CP). The Center’s recently published NSF-funded research compared the efficacy of CPs with BIPs in court mandated domestic violence cases in Nogales, AZ. The study’s findings revealed that offenders assigned to CP reoffended at lower rates then those assigned to complete treatment in a traditional BIP. Lower rates of recidivism among CP participants was found during all four post-test follow-up periods (6, 12, 18, and 24 months).
MYTH: RJ would force victims to conference with their abusers
RJ employs the use of conferencing between victim and offender in order to adequately identify the harm that was created as a result of domestic violence. After the harm has been identified, the second task is to decide how this harm can be remedied. A victim who is unable or unwilling to meet face to face with his or her abuser would never be forced to engage in this discussion. Both parties must be willing to participate in the circle process. In contrast to our current response to DV, where mandatory arrest policies and victimless prosecution have undermined the agency of DV survivors, RJ practices can be highly empowering and healing for those individuals who choose to participate. Namely this is because decision-making power lies with the individual who is directly impacted by the violence, giving victims the tools and resources necessary to heal themselves and their families and furthermore, to make well-informed decisions about future courses of action.
MYTH: RJ promotes victim blaming
Research on IPV has consistently demonstrated that a history of childhood trauma is common among those who batter their partners as adults. Given the existence and recognition of the intergenerational transmission of violence, many within the field of domestic violence have advocated for batterer intervention that takes this victimization into account. Some contend that this focus on past trauma and present triggers creates justifications for the use of violence and contributes to a culture of victim blaming. We disagree with this assumption. RJ demands the highest accountability from all participants involved in the restorative process. Victims are never blamed for causing the violence they have experienced, and instead they are encouraged to speak honestly about the harm that has been caused to them as a result of a partner’s, violence.
MYTH: RJ does not hold offenders accountable
Accountability is at the center of RJ practices. However, in contrast to a punitive approach to violence, RJ fosters accountability by the offender through a focus on empathy for who was harmed. In addition to learning how to put oneself in another’s shoes, the offender is also challenged to conceptualize who the victim is in a much broader sense. While violence directly impacts the individual, it also indirectly impacts family, friends and the community of the victim as well. This is why RJ conferences allow the victim and her/his supporters to be part of this process – to discuss with the offender how their violence has impacted them as the sister, father, or co-worker of the victim. Accountability is also fostered in the offender as they work to restore the harm caused by their actions. For an example of how RJ practices are being used successfully with incarcerated individuals serving time for homicide related crimes, read here about The Osbourne Association’s Longtermers Responsibility Project.
MYTH: RJ sees the offender as a “good guy” and would compel victims to stay with their abusers
This one is actually partly true. A major principle of RJ is that while people may in fact do bad things, they are not bad people. So, while a batterer’s actions are certainly harmful and reprehensible, RJ believes that change is possible and often desired by all parties involved in incidences of DV–victim and offender alike. By refusing to let the offense define the batterer, RJ honors their humanity and supports their efforts toward change. The same is also true for victims who are often made to feel weak, disempowered, and pathological for staying with a violent partner for any length of time. While recognizing the humanity in everyone involved, RJ does not compel victims to stay with their abusers. To restate, RJ treatment was developed in response to the desire of victims to keep their families together by ending their experiences with violence. Victims who wish to leave an abusive relationship should be supported toward that end. Victims who are steadfast in their desire to stay with their partner are no less deserving of this support and should be given the opportunity to stop the violence and heal their family.