I failed my restorative justice workshop.
I’m a good person, I swear. I care about racial justice. I believe police operate with minimal accountability and that murder is a crime regardless of whether the murderer is wearing a uniform. I believe permitting some citizens to walk around with guns and the legal right to apply chokeholds at will is living according to a medieval and terrifying social model. I believe in looking for new options, options that don’t give tanks to law enforcement.
Restorative justice is not that option.
A few years ago, I was the victim of a crime. I reported it and the attacker to the police. After an absurd investigation, the police concluded that, yes, the act had happened, but it was in fact consensual.
At one point, my very liberal college community decided to sit me and my abuser down and hear us both out. I was invited to a town-hall-style forum where I could present my case, my attacker could present his, and then the community would decide who was telling the truth.
I planned to show up. Really, I did. It’s just that on the night I was scheduled to participate in this charade, I decided I had too much self-respect to retell the story of my assault in front of people I thought I could trust, while they judged every word for validity. I know the truth, and no one is entitled to the personal details of my tragedy to assuage their anxieties about believing women.
My community decided I must be lying. They voted in their town hall forum that I was no longer welcome in their space on campus. They said that I’d brought the violence into their community by bringing in the police. The violence done to my body, apparently, wasn’t real enough.
I’m sure that passionate practitioners of restorative justice would argue that my community just misunderstood. That they were just doing it wrong. That, of course the victim’s rights need to take precedence over the needs of the accused — except for when the victim has to recount their version of events and relive the trauma, because it’s paramount that both sides be heard.
There’s no way to balance the needs of the victim with the needs of the perpetrator, and restorative justice doesn’t do a better job of that than the legal system does. Instead, restorative justice pretends to offer the victim a voice without narrowing down certain key definitions, like what it really means to be a victim or a perpetrator. In this case, my then community decided that the harm I’d done to them by reporting a crime to the police was as real and legitimate as the harm done to me in the first place.
I disagree, but restorative justice offers me no ground to stand on in mounting my case.
Restorative justice is like employer-sponsored arbitration. It isn’t a means to help the most vulnerable person in the room. Instead, it’s a way for the community to feel better about not taking action to prevent the incident from happening, and therefore validate inaction in the event of future assaults.
I was raised to be a good liberal girl, and I am. So I ought to be in favor of restorative justice. I ought to see the benefit in giving the accused their day in court. Apparently I ought to accept when someone in a position of authority accuses me of doing harm by raising questions rooted in my own life experiences, questions about antisemitism and the proper way to speak about trauma, sex, violence, or morality.
Too often, it’s the person who names the violence rather than the perpetrator of that violence who’s deemed its source, because they’re the ones who violated community norms by drawing attention to the issue that’s been there all along.
Meanwhile, I have to live in a society that can’t offer me justice for the literal, on-the-books crimes that I’ve been a victim of.
I’m not a violent person. Still, if I were king for a day, there are people in this world who I’d like to see die.
The criminal justice system doesn’t only exist to punish the accused. It offers victims an opportunity to exorcise our rage through a more objective, institutional campaign of state-sponsored violence.
We’re human animals. Violence exists as part of our nature. That violence is there for a reason, to tell us when something is wrong and to empower us to fight against it. Crimes like rape and murder require a real struggle to identify who the perpetrator is, and to prevent it from happening again.
The Star Trek-style notion that if only we could all sit down and understand each other then all wounds would be healed and the future would be brighter is nonsense.
It’s sweet, and I think it could be achievable if we all grew up in a society in which this outlook and response was the norm. But we don’t live in that society.
I have sympathy for those raised in abusive environments, but that doesn’t mean I’m willing to allow them to abuse me as part of their “healing process,” nor should I be. I’m no one’s scapegoat. I’m no one’s punching bag.
The criminal justice system needs severe reworking. Judges, police, lawyers, and the system itself are racist, sexist, and classist. That’s just part of the society we live in.
I want to change our society. I don’t want to see it dismantled to make way for one dedicated to lofty goals and rooted fundamentally in a misunderstanding of what crime is.
There’s a difference between emotional crime and legal crime. There’s a difference between harming someone and abusing them. There’s a difference between causing someone consternation or discomfort, and actually doing violence to them.
I agree that we need a system to help us navigate the difficult conversations that occur when harm is done. But there can be no comparison between the harm of emotional conflict and the harm done by actual crimes. In the latter, someone preys on the weaknesses of the vulnerable for personal gain.
These crimes require institutional justice, not personal understanding or compassion. They require state-sponsored violent acts, to keep us all safe from the relatively small but extant number of people who can’t be trusted with the freedoms we take for granted.
I’m still discovering what kind of justice I’m fighting for, but it’s not this. It’ll never be this.