Restorative Justice and Sexual Harm
When I first heard about the prospect of meeting my attacker, it was brandished to me as a question from journalists asking, “would you ever meet him? Could we be there and see your reaction?” The gratuitous way this was branded as some kind of social experiment, or form of entertainment for gawping at, made me think this was the last thing I would ever do. But the union between offenders and victims of crime actually has a name, and can be done correctly and safely through professional services rather than the media – it is called Restorative Justice (RJ).
RJ allows victims of crimes, including sexual violence survivors, to express how the incident affected them, to take control, and to have a voice. For many people, it can be an incredibly valuable part of the healing process. Having heard little about RJ at the time of being assaulted, I had not realised that #NotGuilty was grounded in similar restorative principles. It wanted to help survivors speak out, it wanted to give them a safe space, and reassure them that they weren’t to blame. So similar were the principles underlying the #NotGuilty campaign, that the Restorative Justice Council (RJC) actually blogged about the movement at the time. I have since met with Safi Schlicht, head of policy and communications at the RJC, and one of the stories she told really struck me. She said that, despite blogging about it, they did not want to approach me at the time, but instead let me come to them if I felt it was something I would want to do. I think this is a testament to the work they do and principles they operate with – hoping to give total control to survivors. You choose if it is something you want to do, you choose how the session pans out with the support of a facilitator, and you choose what to say and when to start and stop.
It gives control and a voice to sexual violence survivors during the justice process – when sometimes sexual assault survivors are not even able to read aloud their victim impact statements in court if they ask to. Working with Safi from the RJC and Charlotte Calkin, a RJ facilitator accredited by the RJC, we’ve put together a guide to RJ – as well as information on how to know if it is something that could help you, and testimonials by survivors who have done RJ in cases of sexual violence. I never had access to such a resource and thus was very misinformed about RJ, whilst now I can very much say this is something I can recognise huge benefits in.
What is restorative justice?
Restorative justice gives survivors the chance to meet or communicate with their offender to explain the real impact of the crime – it empowers survivors by giving them a voice. Restorative justice often involves a meeting called a conference, where a survivor meets their offender face to face. Sometimes, when a face to face meeting is not the best way forward, the survivor and offender will communicate through letters, recorded interviews, video or via a facilitator instead.
Why would I want to take part?
While every case is different, there are some issues which many survivors of sexual harm have talked about experiencing. If you identify with any of the following statements it’s worth finding out more about restorative justice:
‘I have questions which only the offender can answer.’
‘I want the offender to know how their actions have affected me.’
‘The offender took away my control and I want a chance to get it back.’
‘I feel as if I’m not moving on from what happened to me.’
One woman who went through RJ said: “I knew as soon as she said it that I wanted to meet him because this was about me taking control of the situation, re-balancing what he had taken away from me that day. The judge had said to the offender in Court ‘you have destroyed this woman’s life’ – but that wasn’t what I wanted, and that wasn’t how I saw it.”
When asked to describe her different experience of court and doing RJ after experiencing domestic violence one woman said: “RJ is much better. It lowers the stress levels. It’s a more humane way of doing things. In the RJ process I have known who the people are and who I talk to. It has been easy to get proper answers. My overall feeling was being relieved to be helped by RJ.”
This is feedback from a rape survivor who went through the process with Charlotte Calkin, RJ facilitator accredited by the Restorative Justice Council – she did not do a face to face meeting so this is quite interesting how helpful it can be without being face-to-face: “It was very helpful. I never thought I’d get my answers, but I did. Its been such a great help. I don’t know how else I would have got those answers. The answers I was given have changed things so much.”
What are the benefits?
Restorative justice can help survivors to get answers to their questions and to directly tell the person who harmed them how they have been impacted. Many survivors feel that the criminal justice system does not give them a chance to get involved, but restorative justice puts them at the heart of the justice process. This can empower survivors and help them to move on. Restorative justice holds offenders to account and can give them an opportunity to make amends. And research shows that it reduces reoffending by 14%.
How is restorative justice different in cases of sexual harm?
Restorative justice has to be very carefully considered in cases of sexual harm, and can usually only be considered when initiated by the survivor. If the offender is known to the survivor it may add additional risk factors. No one should ever be expected or in any way pressurised to take part, and, in order to make sure the process is safe, restorative justice should only happen when there is a facilitator with the right skills and experience available. They must have completed suitable training and have specific expertise in sexual harm. They will decide whether the process is appropriate and, if it goes ahead, make sure that the survivor is kept safe.
The Restorative Justice Council recommends that any practitioner working with survivors of sexual harm gets advice from specialist organisations, like Rape Crisis.
Charlotte Calkin, RJ facilitator accredited by the Restorative Justice Council, said: “It is really important that the participants own the process themselves and that every detail of the process is decided with them. So, for example, I will work with them on the seating arrangements for the meeting so that they are really clear about every detail of what will happen.”
What are the criteria for taking part?
Restorative justice can be used for any type of crime and at any stage of the criminal justice system, including alongside a prison sentence. It doesn’t matter how long ago the crime took place – there is no time limit. Restorative justice is only possible if the offender has admitted to the crime, and both survivor and offender must be willing to participate – it is an entirely voluntary process.
What will happen if I decide to take part?
The restorative justice process is led by a facilitator who supports and prepares the people taking part and makes sure that it is safe. They will be able to talk you through the process, answer any questions that you may have and explain what will happen every step of the way. This will be a chance to explore what will work best for you and it is entirely up to you to decide whether to go through with it. You can drop out at any time including on the day of a conference or even while it is taking place. It’s your process and it will be tailored to meet your needs.
If you decide to take part in a restorative justice conference you can choose whether to go alone or have a friend or family member there to support you. This will be discussed with the facilitator and agreed in advance, so that your supporter is fully prepared. The facilitator will always be with you even if you decide not to bring anyone else.
In order to make sure that restorative justice is safe for everyone involved, a great deal of preparation is necessary. You should be prepared for the process to take time – it won’t happen overnight.
Will it affect my offender’s sentence?
Once an offender has been convicted a restorative intervention will not impact on their sentence.
Do I have to forgive the offender?
No, restorative justice is not about forgiveness. It’s an opportunity to say the things you need to say to the person who harmed you in a safe, controlled environment.
When can’t you do restorative justice?
If the offender does not accept responsibility for their actions or refuses to participate then restorative justice cannot take place. If they are diagnosed with a serious mental health condition restorative justice is also unlikely to be possible. If, during the process, the facilitator decides that it is unsafe in any way, they will stop it immediately.
What do I do next?
To find out more about restorative justice and how to access it, you can call the Restorative Justice Council on 020 7831 5700.
Testimonial of Restorative Justice by Rosalyn Boyce:
“It’s now been four months since the meeting, although it feels a lot longer. For the first month I felt euphoric. I felt a sense that I could finally move on after fifteen long years, a sense of relief and of overall peace; a life line.
With a bit of space from the whole RJ experience I am getting somewhere and can move on in a realistic way. I do not regret, for one second, any part of my decision to meet Lee Hill, as mentally challenging and difficult as it has been at times. I consider myself lucky to have such an experienced team of people around me, who did not falter, even when I did. Those people, in their professional roles, put their assumptions about me and about the case aside in order to do a very important job. RJ has transformed my life and the lives of those around me for the better. I am told that it has also had a deep impact on Lee’s life, although I will leave that firmly where it belongs, at his door.
People may assume that the fact I received an apology would make up, in some way, for what happened. I had no idea how I would feel about receiving an apology. In the end it is meaningless to me, just words. The fact I had the opportunity to face up to my ultimate fear and dispel some of the myths I had created in my own mind is far more valid as far as I am concerned.
In the room that day, I was finally allowed my voice. Restorative Justice does not necessarily mean we receive all the answers or total closure. It doesn’t mean the hurt miraculously stops. To me it meant I was no longer one of Lee’s silent victims.
Fifteen years on I was able to face the perpetrator head on and hand back some of the harm and the responsibility firmly where it belongs, to regain some semblance of power and control out of a situation that had
been entirely out of my control and had left me mute and powerless.
Life has taken on a more peaceful shape, I am not looking over my shoulder or living with uncertainty and fear anymore. To a survivor that is priceless.
I now have some solid ground on which to walk. Anyone who has ever had the ground pulled from under them by being on the receiving end of crime will know what I mean. Everyone who has been through a crime deserves the option of Restorative Justice. I now know that Restorative Justice for sexual crime cases are rare in our society. In my opinion this needs to change. I believe the people that turned down the case did so because of their own fear and were far too quick to form judgement or look the other way.
I realise that every case is entirely different and there are many factors to be taken into account. However, to refuse Restorative Justice is to disempower the people directly involved, perpetrators and victims, even further than they have been already.
Six months on …. Next month Lee comes up for parole. Up until very recently the thought of his release had left me rigid with fear, terrified that this stranger would come after me and carry out his initial threat. Upon reflection, I cannot see this man being any more rehabilitated after fifteen years of incarceration. Therefore, if it is deemed by a Parole Board that he is no longer a threat to society or to women then I can see no further reason for him to remain in prison. That has to remain their decision and on their conscience.
With my deepest gratitude to everyone who made the Restorative Justice conference possible.”
To read Rosalyn’s full story, please click here.