Survivor experiences of the criminal justice system

****Content warning for sexual violence, rape, criminal justice system, victim blaming, racism****

There is a lot going on in colleges in the United States at present, with many feminists campaigning around sexual and dating violence on campus including the announcement of a new initiative to increase federal funding for the Department of Education to address the high rates of sexual assault on colleges campuses. In this blog from Wagatwe at Feministing she speaks about the way this initiative and the survivors who are supporting it are derailed by discussions of why survivors don’t report to the police and utilise the criminal justice system.

As a crisis worker and survivor advocate, I have spoken to many survivors who face huge amounts of pressure and scrutiny from partners, friends families and others about needing to report what happened to them to the police in order to ‘stop’ the same thing happening to other women. Many of these women don’t want to report their rapes, but are made to feel responsible for the actions of perpetrators and their crimes. Similarly, many of them do report the assaults to their schools, university’s, halls of residence, work places, doctors, or places of care and are faced with disbelief, told there is ‘nothing anyone can do’ or sometimes charged and investigated for making false allegations (a very rare occurrence).

I am not suggesting that women don’t use the criminal justice system, many women utilize the justice system and are entitled to have their day in court regardless of the outcome. What I am interested in, is this notion of the criminal justice system as the only way that survivors can seek justice and the way this ignores how survivors view their justice needs and also shuts down valid and alternative methods of seeking justice such as through Universities or through indigenous models that don’t align to western concepts of retribution and punishment. For my post grad thesis I wrote about survivors views of procedural, retributive and restorative justice and how these would better align with a host of reforms which were suggested to the New Zealand criminal justice system (which, unfortunately were never adopted).

As a diverse group of people, survivors have very mixed ideas about what justice means to them. Some wish for retribution or punitive
consequences for offenders and report having vengeful and/or violent feelings towards offenders . One New Zealand survivor notes:

His mother pleaded with me not to go through with the charge. She said if he went back to jail it would be the finish of him and that it would be the end of her. I felt sorry for her-but then he did it didn’t he? I didn’t see why he should just get away with it; after all it’s me that has to live with it.

However, a study by Doob and Sprott (1997)  found that victim/survivors of sexual violence are less supportive of extremely punitive justice systems than those who have not been affected by similar crimes.

Exposure, rather than retribution, was the most often cited reason for pursuing cases in the literature I looked at. Exposure was considered important as it served to ensure the safety of the individual survivor but also the safety of others. The intention was to prevent further crimes, rather than punish the offender for the crimes they had already committed. One victim/survivor in Herman’s (2005) study initiated civil action after the prosecutor decided not to pursue her case.

She explained, “I wanted him to go to court, money wasn’t the issue. I wanted him embarrassed. He was going to have to tell his family. He wanted to sign a confidentiality agreement; I said no of course I’m going to tell people about it’” (p.594).

This resonates with some victim/survivors in the study by Barrington et al. (1983) who felt that prison was the only available option, but this was not considered a satisfactory solution in the long term as it would not modify the offender’s behaviour.

One victim/survivor of gang rape said: “I am glad they’re in prison because another girl is safe while they’re away, but prison is not going to do them any good”

A small number of victim/survivors felt that while the criminal justice system should play a role in facilitating or producing justice for them and other victim/survivors, nothing would ever undo their experience or totally compensate them for the wrongdoing. A victim/survivor of Malcolm Rewa from Jordan’s (2008) study commented on the inadequacy of the retributive nature of the justice system:

Hearing the word guilty or not guilty is not going to take away what happened to you… we are paying for him to have three meals a day, watch TV, build up his body in the gym, blah blah blah, how ironic is that?”

Whether through formal or informal means the objective of most survivors was acknowledgement from their communities and an admission of guilt from the offender was neither “necessary nor sufficient” to validate the survivors claim. Survivors in Herman’s (2005) study were acutely aware of the way the crime was an act of disempowerment and humiliation and so sought to restore their status in the community, particularly in cases where the offender was a part of the same community.

The validation by bystanders and communities was considered of equal or greater importance, as it affirmed solidarity with the survivors and re-established their connections with their communities. Within this view of justice it was important for survivors to let their families and communities see through the offender’s deceptions (Herman, 2005):

I think I ought to believe he should be jailed, because I think it of other men who abuse children… I would think it of my father if he abused someone else… but if it was ‘just’ me, I want him to be seen for what he is by people who matter to me (p. 593).

So, alternative methods of justice such as college based processes not only fit better with the needs of survivors they are also preventative in the ways they address sexual violence in communities. If we have appropriate sanctions for sexual violence at all levels of society, if survivors are believed and their communities support them and validate their experiences, not only do we do the work of prioritisng survivors and their healing but we also send the message to offenders that we know what they have done and that their actions are unacceptable. To do this on a grand scale, in every institution, workplace, family and home is to do it properly. To do it on that scale is to create real change. When so few survivors report and so few offenders are convicted, we need to think bigger than the criminal justice system, we need to make it a part of every facet of our communities in order to send a consistent message and end rape culture.

 

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