Restorative justice is often used in social work and services as an alternative to prosecution. But how appropriate is it for domestic violence cases?
Restorative justice focuses on repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior.
It is a dialogue-based practice that brings victims and offenders together to discuss a crime’s impact – with the goal of restitution and closure for the victim and rehabilitation for the offender.
Increasingly, restorative justice is being used as an alternative to criminal prosecution in domestic violence cases. Social workers are often central to the process, acting as mediators and case managers. While it can play a positive and productive role in social work and services, some experts argue that when applied to domestic violence, it often simply re-victimizes the victim.
Can restorative justice ever play a useful role in helping clients who are experiencing domestic violence?
And what considerations should social workers keep in mind when serving clients who prefer the restorative justice approach?
An Alternative to the Courts
Expert and consultant Dr. Marian Liebmann argues that restorative justice can be effective — provided it’s done under stringent conditions. These include only pursuing it at the victim’s request, using impartial facilitators and providing a safe environment for the victim. It allows the victim to:
- Express their feelings and specific needs to the offender
- Educate the offender about the impact of their offense
- Receive an apology or other reparations from the offender
- Work through existing conflicts
- Get emotional closure
Dr. Liebmann draws a distinction between cases where the violence arose from specific situations that escalated until violence occurred, and where violence is used as a means of coercive control. In the latter situation, she says it’s more likely to be part of a long-term problem, and therefore less suitable for a restorative justice approach.
University of Maryland law professor Leigh Goodmark says restorative justice acknowledges that not all victims of domestic violence necessarily want to leave their partners or see them prosecuted. She points to economic reasons, immigration status, children, community support, religion and other factors as “complicated and compelling” reasons to stay and try to repair the relationship.
Limitations of Restorative Justice
The role of social workers is to minimize harm to their clients. Therefore it’s important to look at each case individually and determine whether restorative justice is the right way forward. Various experts acknowledge the positive role it can play in tackling overall levels of domestic violence, but caution against its use if it only puts the victim at further risk.
- Writer and lawyer Jill Filipovic says that while restorative justice can be useful for certain types of crime, it can downplay the seriousness of domestic violence, especially when the perpetrator is viewed by their community as a “good guy” who simply lost control. She points out that the “transformative change” needed to make a person renounce violence is usually a long and complicated process, and one that victims shouldn’t have to experience.
- Yolanda Jimenez, executive director of the Joe Torre Safe At Home Foundation, makes a similar argument in the New York Times, saying that asking the victim if they want the perpetrator arrested only puts the burden back on the victim. She says, “We cannot go back to the time when police officers would arrive at a victim’s house and ask them if they wanted the batterer arrested.”
- Donna Coker, law professor at the University of Miami, offers the counter-argument that some abusive partners do change, and that “some marriages are worth saving.” She says that arrest may only be a short-term deterrent, especially for men who have little to lose by going to jail.
Choosing the Right Process
Restorative justice can be carried out in a number of ways. According to Dr. Liebmann, these can include victim-offender mediation, restorative conferencing, family group conferencing, victim-offender groups and sentencing or peace-making circles.
One of the roles of social work professionals is to help the victim choose a format and setting they are comfortable with, and to decide whether other family members – along with people from the wider community — should participate in the process.
While it has its supporters, restorative justice remains a controversial topic among experts who aren’t convinced of its safety and effectiveness for victims of domestic abuse. Prosecution or restitution — what do you think is the best way to help women who have experienced domestic violence?
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