Restorative Justice Weighed as Alternative for Addressing Domestic Violence Disputes

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Camilla knew her ex-boyfriend might try to kill her.

“I’d rather you were dead than with someone else,” he told her over the phone after she’d ended the relationship via text message, afraid that telling him face-to-face would send him into a violent rage. 

Now he was talking about “greenlighting” her, which meant giving his gang-member buddies the go ahead to murder her on his behalf.

Camilla, a young woman from Los Angeles who requested her real name be withheld for safety reasons, was terrified. But she didn’t want to go to the police. As a child, she’d seen a neighbor murdered by her partner after seeking a restraining order against him. And she had family members who’d spent time in prison, but never received treatment for the mental illness or substance abuse issues that landed them there in the first place.

“I’d grown up really aware of the system and how it impacts people,” Camilla explained. “So even though I was really concerned for my safety, I didn’t want (my ex-boyfriend) incarcerated, and I didn’t want to involve the system. I didn’t feel like it was going to protect me.”

So, instead of dialing 911, Camilla called upon a different kind of support system: adult mentors who worked at a local youth group that she and her ex-boyfriend regularly attended. These mentors knew the teenage couple, their friends, families and the neighborhood well. They also had experience responding to conflicts among members of the youth group through a process called restorative justice.

Restorative justice is a practice of addressing wrongdoing by engaging both the victim and perpetrator of a crime in a structured dialogue, usually with members of their social circle and community in the same room. The goal is to allow victims and others affected by the crime to speak candidly about the harm they suffered, and for the offender to speak about why they committed the crime and to take responsibility for the harm they caused. Then, both sides agree upon a way to repair the damage and hold the perpetrator accountable. This could include the perpetrator paying compensation to the victim, agreeing to attend counseling, apologizing to the family, or doing community service.

Most often, restorative justice is applied to non-violent crimes, such as stealing, or to juvenile offences. However, there is growing interest—especially in California—in using restorative justice techniques to tackle domestic violence.

“The current legal systems that we operate within generally don’t meet the needs of crime survivors, but that’s particularly true in the context of sexual and intimate partner violence,” said Sujatha Baliga, director of the Restorative Justice Project at the Oakland-based organization Impact Justice, which researches ideas for reforming the criminal justice system.

“The vast majority of survivors do not contact the system for help,” said Baliga. “And those that have contacted the system often report that it made them less safe or didn’t really do anything to help.”

Many domestic violence survivors do obtain protections through the legal system, such as custody of their children and restraining orders against a violent partner (although some survivors complain these orders don’t work effectively). Organizations that help domestic violence survivors typically encourage clients to engage with the legal system—such as by filing a police report or applying for a restraining order—in addition to taking other, non-legal measures to exit a violent relationship safely. But advocates for restorative justice say there’s a need for alternative strategies to address domestic violence, especially in cases where survivors don’t want the police involved.

Restorative Justice has its roots in Native American traditions and other ancient practices, but began gaining mainstream traction in the United States in the 1990s. It’s used both within the criminal justice system, such as in prisons to help rehabilitate offenders, and outside of it, in churches, schools, community groups and workplaces. Those who use these techniques independently of the criminal justice system also refer to it as transformative justice, or alternative justice.

Mimi Kim, executive director of a transformative justice pilot program in the Bay Area called Creative Interventions, has witnessed the shortcomings of the current criminal justice system firsthand. Kim worked at the Asian Women’s Shelter in San Francisco for 10 years, and realized many women experiencing domestic violence didn’t want to go to a shelter or contact authorities. Some, like Camila, mistrusted law enforcement, especially women from communities of color historically impacted by police violence. Many were also reluctant to upend their lives and those of their children by going to a shelter, wanting instead to find a less chaotic way of resolving the situation with their partners, Kim said.

“I saw how the other system was very limited in how it worked,” she said. “I’m not saying it hasn’t helped people, but I saw the gap in what was available.”

For three years, Kim ran Creative Interventions with members of local ethnic organizations, the Asian Women’s shelter and an advocate for prison abolition. The team applied restorative justice techniques to around 25 domestic violence and sexual assault situations, documenting the approach and developing a 600-page toolkit to help other organizations interested in using the same strategies.

Kim is now helping develop a restorative justice program in Contra Costa County at a resource center for domestic violence survivors. She said the idea of applying transformative justice to domestic violence cases is still very new and requires further refinement. However, she believes the strategy could become more widespread if people start to recognize its effectiveness and it receives more funding.

PolicyLink, a national research and action group focused on addressing racial and economic inequality, is already looking to build restorative justice programs in California focused on reducing gender-based violence in communities of color. The organization’s Alliance for Boys and Men of Color recently launched a campaign to help community and domestic violence organizations develop these types of programs.

Marc Philpart, managing director for the alliance, said restorative justice has the potential to better serve both victims and perpetrators of intimate partner violence. It empowers victims with a voice to shape how their case is handled, instead of leaving it up to police or the courts, he said. It also provides survivors with an option if they don’t want to report domestic abuse to authorities because of mistrust, or out of fear that it might impact their immigration status, he added.

For men, restorative justice can create an opportunity to heal from past trauma and address violent behavior without facing the additional trauma of police involvement, he said. 

“There are just too few options available for people who need to have some understanding of how to mange their emotions and behavior, and help them work through trauma and healing,” Philpart said. “We want to invest more in those solutions, in those alternatives.”

The alliance is also supporting a California bill to create a state office focused on violence prevention that would strengthen community-based violence intervention programs. The bill, AB-656, recently passed the assembly appropriations committee.

Restorative justice doesn’t work in all domestic violence situations, said Tina Rodriguez, program manager at Community Action Partnership of Madera County, which operates a shelter for domestic violence survivors. Sometimes, the perpetrator has suffered a traumatic brain injury or has a serious personality disorder that makes it difficult for them to control their violent impulses or reflect on the harm they’ve caused. And there’s no guarantee that a restorative justice process will keep a survivor safe, she said

But for many survivors, the criminal justice system does not guarantee safety either. Rodriguez said survivors frequently complain to her that restraining orders don’t prevent their violent partner from coming after them. And many grapple with how to protect themselves once their abuser is released from prison, something that’s become more frequent under changes to California’s sentencing laws.

Kruti Parekh, who coordinates transformative justice circles in Southern California, said she’s handled about 12 incidents of intimate partner violence. Transformative justice interventions work best within an established community center or school that can quickly mobilize staff to circle around those involved and provide support, she said. It’s also important to have male leaders involved in the process, Parekh added. Based on her own experiences, she said she believes transformative justice is the best way to handle domestic violence cases.

In the criminal justice system “I just don’t think there’s any learning or healing or true transformation that happens to folks that have harmed,” she said. “I feel like (transformative justice) is bringing the people closest to the situation together to collectively hold somebody accountable, and I feel like there’s a lot more promise there.”  

For Camilla, the restorative justice process through her youth group didn’t go completely smoothly. Her ex-boyfriend refused to meet for a group discussion and continued to threaten her. However, adults from the youth organization succeeded in talking with him, and reminded him that Camilla had a supportive network of people that were looking out for her. They also helped Camilla organize a hotel stay, and later relocate to another area for a couple of months to stay safe.

Her ex-boyfriend ended up moving away and the threats stopped.

“The transformative justice process made sure I was supported and guided,” Camilla said. “Even though it didn’t end up being a formal process, it protected me, and it gave me the tools to get out, which I think is the most important thing.”

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