a 2020 Hindsight essay written for “35 Years of Minnesota Women”
Almost 20 years ago, my friend Tim introduced me to the philosophy of restorative justice. He was a restorative justice planner for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. I was a social worker based in the community. When I would share a challenge or conflict between neighborhood residents, Tim usually had a suggestion that included restorative justice. Although I would politely listen, I thought, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” For Tim, restorative justice was the solution for most problems.
It wasn’t until colleagues also began to wonder if restorative justice might be a response to some neighborhood concerns that I realized it was time to learn more. I attended peacemaking circle training, which led to co-creating supportive re-entry circles for people returning to the neighborhood after being released from prison. Eventually, I had the opportunity to become a facilitator of Victim Offender Dialogues in Crimes of Severe Violence (VOD). This is a restorative justice practice that brings together those impacted by violent crime — usually family members of someone who was murdered — for dialogue with the person responsible for the crime, who tends to be serving a prison sentence.
In 2005, I had my first opportunity to co-facilitate a VOD, with a mother who was meeting the man serving a life sentence for murdering her son. I later learned this was one of the earlier dialogues to happen in the State of Minnesota. While restorative justice was growing in acceptance as a response to many types of crime, surviving family members who requested to meet directly with the person responsible for the murder of a loved one had, historically, been told this was not an option for them.
A commonly held assumption at the time was that this type of dialogue might re-victimize the family member and may be harmful to the offender as well. Requests for VOD were also caught up in the paternalism of the criminal legal system. [I use the term “criminal legal system” in place of “criminal justice system” in recognition that the current system is not “justice” for the majority of people impacted by it.”]
The powers that be thought they knew best what surviving family members needed. Restorative justice also meant seeing the person who did harm as a human being — a view many in society were unwilling to take.
Despite the resistance, surviving family members continued to insist that an opportunity for VOD would assist with their healing. Due to the persistence of surviving family members, by 2005 VOD was a formal opportunity made available, with caveats, to surviving family members who requested it. However, there continued to be widely accepted exceptions to its use.
When I participated in VOD facilitator training, a respected educator instructed the trainees that it would never be appropriate to offer VOD to survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence.
Despite the recognition that we need to listen to the people impacted by violent crime, it would take many more years before there was willingness to consider the wants of survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence. Some of them wanted healing through restorative justice.
My experiences led me to become the program director of Seward Longfellow Restorative Justice (SLRJ), a position I have held for more than 11 years. Founded by neighborhood residents in 2004, SLRJ provides a restorative justice alternative to the juvenile legal system for youth cited for crimes and those they have harmed. Convincing people that restorative justice is appropriate when youth break the law has been fairly easy. Most people recognize that youth make mistakes while growing up, and that some mistakes violate the law. It seems reasonable to respond with restorative solutions that treat the offending behavior as an opportunity for learning and making amends, instead of as an opportunity for punishment determined by authorities.
As restorative justice has grown in familiarity, once again there are survivors pushing the limits of its use. About three years ago, I noticed an increase in discussion about whether restorative justice could be an appropriate response to gender-based violence, including sexual assault and intimate partner violence. In one instance, advocates serving LGBTQ+ communities asked me for advice when they began getting requests on their hotline for restorative resources.
Some survivors felt that reporting what happened to the police could put their abuser, or themselves, at risk for mistreatment or misunderstanding, due to their sexual orientation or gender identity — risks they weren’t willing to take.
Another advocate, from a domestic violence shelter, attended training with SLRJ after she began hearing from survivors that they wanted restorative justice as an option. Then, SLRJ began to receive direct requests, including one from a survivor of sexual assault. A police report had been filed, but this survivor was reluctant to move forward in the legal system. A counselor had suggested exploring restorative justice as an alternative.
Despite wanting to honor these types of requests, none of us have felt equipped to offer restorative justice in these instances due to the complexities of the power, sexism, and patriarchy that fuels gender-based violence. Yet, to tell people that restorative justice isn’t right for their situation, or to tell them their circumstances are too complex for current programs, seems to only perpetuate the harm and helplessness they have already experienced.
I began reaching out to those working in the field of gender-based violence to explore together how to respond to requests from survivors. Reactions to my inquiries are varied and strong. Many professionals are encouraged because some survivors they work with are looking for restorative responses. Other advocates have profound concerns. They ask, “Since gender-based violence is about power and systemic oppression, how can you bring people together?” Still others ask, “How do you ensure the person who did the harm doesn’t manipulate the process to further victimize the survivor?”
Yes, gender-based violence has been perpetuated by systems of oppression. Yes, the issues are complex. Yes, one has to move forward with extreme care and thoughtfulness. At the same time, this is what many survivors are asking of us. Will we continue to flatly deny their requests? Or will we answer them by being courageous and creative in developing new responses with them?
A vision for using restorative justice for gender-based violence is not limited to creating opportunities for survivors to meet with the person who perpetrated the violence. It could involve conversation with different perpetrators who have caused pain with a similar crime.