In the wake of the convictions in the Steubenville rape case, justice feels unsatisfying. If we are to help each other move forward, perhaps we should focus more on healing versus punishment. Restorative justice may be the answer.
The two Steubenville convicted rapists are heading off to their juvenile facility. Many in the media are bemoaning their fate because they are “good” boys. Whatever. ‘Good’ boys do not do what they did, and they deserve to suffer some consequences for their actions. However, I do agree that the ‘justice’ in this case was unsatisfying. Both boys will serve at least one year but the victim has a lifetime sentence. Moreover, many of the people who were legally guilty of not reporting a crime, and morally guilty of failing to stop what happened, may get off without even a wrist slap. And even worse, I imagine the only thing most people learned from this case was to not use social media to document a crime. We need to do better.
Our justice system is flawed. I could give you statistics about the high rate of incarceration and talk about how prisons are places in which more abuse occurs, where few are rehabilitated and the primary lesson for inmates is often how to become a more effective criminal. I could also explore both the economic and human cost of locking up so many people but I don’t want to do that. I have other things to discuss, so suffice it to say that we need to revamp our increasingly crowded, violent and all around unsustainable justice system. Plus, it solves very little.
Take Steubenville, for example. Yes, the two rapists being sent to prison gives a sense that they are being punished, but it’s not enough. The victim has gotten little beyond threats on her life, and the city has been torn apart. The offenders are off the street now but, once they get out, will they do something like this again? Will throwing the bystanders in jail help the city repair itself? Will the victim feel more than a fleeting measure of satisfaction from the punishment? Maybe, no, and probably not. So what can be done? How do you help a community, one that includes all of its members, heal from such a horrific situation?
One way is to try using restorative justice. This is an approach to justice that focuses on the needs of the victims, the offenders, and the involved community instead of just meeting legal requirements and utilizing punishment. As any good social psychologist will tell you, punishment is not a good tool for learning, and it is only a short-term solution to the problem. A more long-term and effective solution is needed, and that is where restorative justice can help. It is a process in which everyone involved in the injustice comes together to solve the problem. Victims take an active role and offenders are encouraged to repair the harm they’ve done. It also is a method of providing assistance to the offender to try and avoid future harm. In short, restorative justice is both a way to heal and a model for harm reduction.
Restorative justice could work in Steubenville in several ways. First, a series of voluntary meetings could be held between the victims and the offenders. The victims (and I am including her family as victims because they have been traumatized as well) would have a chance to tell their story and talk about how it affected them. As I mentioned in last week’s blog, “‘Veronica Mars’ as a Template: Another Look at the Steubenville Rape Case”, the psychology of depersonalization has a lot to do with abuse, so this is a way to counteract it. The offenders will have a chance to develop some empathy and take responsibility for their actions. Then the victims and the offenders can create together a plan that repairs the harm caused by the crime. (Let’s hope it would include the offenders paying for the victims’ counseling).
Similarly, restorative justice circles could be held in the community so that everyone who has been affected — coaches, principals, police officers, parents, friends of both victims and offenders, liquor distributors — could all meet to discuss what steps can help resolve their feelings and help prevent something like this from ever happening again. They could create a fund for the counseling of victims of sexual assault, decide to implement seminars on sexual violence, set up hotlines, agree not to sell alcohol to minors, develop a parents’ network for more effective monitoring, initiate frequent town hall meetings, or anything else they think will make a difference. If they all work together, Steubenville could even go from a town with a dark history to one that serves as an example for social justice.
Sure, all of this may sound too idealistic, like something that can never work in the real world, but guess what? It already does. Native American communities have been applying restorative justice principles for decades, restorative circles are being used successfully internationally, organizations like the United Methodist Church employ restorative justice as their primary means of solving conflicts, and there are close to 300 victim mediation groups in the United States which have been endorsed and recommended by the American Bar Association. When surveyed, people who have used restorative justice say that it is much more satisfying, healing and productive than our traditional methods.
Given its success, restorative justice is definitely doable, and it is an area in which both family and community psychologists could provide the leadership needed. We are well trained in how to facilitate productive conversation among groups, we can offer new perspectives and we know how to help people brainstorm solutions. All it would take would be a place to meet, a time in which to do it and, of course, community participation. I realize that getting the community on board will be the most difficult task to accomplish, but surely people can see that our current system is not helpful. If we are to grow as a large country and as smaller communities, we must move beyond punishment and vengeance. They do not work and they certainly aren’t healing. If we are to live together in peace and harmony, we must band together. As Helen Keller once said, “Until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained.” So, Steubenville, Ohio, what do you say? Should restorative justice come to town?
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