Disclaimer: What’s described below is a vision of how restorative justice, or RJ, is offered in local communities in the United States and globally and how it could be offered on college campuses. Most campuses, including UC Berkeley, do not officially sanction some RJ options for cases of sexual assault or harassment. If you are a member of the UC Berkeley community who is interested in an RJ option, please see here for more information and options.
From Hollywood to the Olympics to academia, #MeToo stories keep coming. Unfortunately, they represent only a small fraction of our experiences of sexual harm. With such intensity, the stories and the reactions they cause settle in like fog around us, blocking visibility for the pathway forward to healing and change.
What can restorative justice, or RJ, offer in this #MeToo moment? Before delving in, it’s important to acknowledge that what we call RJ has deep roots in indigenous societies in which the approach to “justice” emphasizes individual and community healing. When practiced in modern institutions, RJ takes different shapes but shares basic elements and principles.
RJ processes invite people who’ve experienced sexual misconduct to tell their stories on their own terms, without judgment. Restorative responses don’t require an investigation, because the goal isn’t to determine whether a specific crime or policy violation has occurred. Rather, it offers people a way to come to terms with experiences of harm by exploring how they’ve been impacted and what they need to go forward. This journey can be difficult, even retraumatizing, but it can also bring a sense of clarity to the past that illuminates a pathway forward.
In survivors’ circles, people can take this journey together. After establishing a trusting and confidential space, participants talk about how it’s been for them since the incident and share coping methods. These circles can have a preventative element, as participants may also brainstorm strategies for cultural change.
Some survivors want to speak directly to the person who harmed them, seeking greater understanding of what happened or paths to future prevention. This approach isn’t for everyone, and it should never be forced or coerced. Survivors must know they can choose not to continue at any time without judgment. Ideally, the survivor is also talking with a counselor, friends and/or family for access to trauma-informed support.
A skilled RJ practitioner meets with a survivor as many times as needed to develop questions and practice what they want to say. Typically, people want answers to such questions as “Why me?” and “What were you thinking?” and specific details to piece together what happened. Some want an apology or acknowledgement of harm and ultimately to hear the responsible person take accountability for their actions and impacts.
People want the chance to say, “I need to know you will never do this to me again, or to anyone else.” They want to ensure the responsible person will make a commitment to real transformation and refrain from engaging in harmful behavior.
This brings us to a controversial aspect of restorative justice: working with people who’ve committed acts of sexual misconduct or harm. The scope of injury of sexual harm that is engulfing us right now makes it hard to see an accused person as anything other than another “perpetrator.” But #MeToo stories also reveal that those perpetuating harm are all around us, in our communities, workplaces, living spaces and families. The fact is that most cases don’t get reported or sufficiently addressed through formal reporting structures, limiting people’s options for taking accountability or making amends. The stress of unresolved harm and conflict that results can fracture communities, further exacerbating trauma.
An RJ practitioner creates a “supportive accountability space” in which a responsible person is prompted to acknowledge the harm their actions have caused. Often, this requires thinking about events through the survivor’s experience and perspective.
The responsible person also reflects on how they came to hold attitudes that led them to engage in certain behaviors. These aren’t meant as excuses, but rather, they can bring insights into what’s needed for growth and change. To prepare for an RJ process, a person must show they’re willing to take accountability and make things right for survivors and their communities.
Sometimes, a person just isn’t ready to meet with those they harmed and needs time away from their community to pursue therapy, substance abuse rehab, culturally relevant education and more. Restorative justice offers other supportive options — such as exit and re-entry circles — to facilitate those transitions.
A skilled facilitator ensures that the restorative encounter proceeds in a way that respects everyone’s dignity and safety. Ideally, a counselor is on hand to offer support, along with carefully vetted community members. Once people feel satisfied with what they’ve said and heard from others, the process culminates in the development of a detailed plan. The plan addresses how the survivor’s needs will be met and maps out the responsible person’s pathway to transformation.
RJ responses can bring healing for communities where people don’t choose a formal process (filing a complaint or prosecuting a case) or after a case is officially completed. In best-case scenarios, RJ processes can also have a preventative effect when those who experience transformation commit to working with their communities to challenge toxic social norms and act as agents of social change.
Dr. Julie Shackford-Bradley is the co-founder and coordinator of the Restorative Justice Center at UC Berkeley.