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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Submission to the select committee for sexual violence

**********Content warning: rape culture, graphic content, sexual violence, woman hating, suicide, sexism****************

Late last year the government announced a select committee inquiry into the funding of specialist sexual violence services in Aotearoa/New Zealand. As a community worker, this is something that our sector has been asking for for a long time. Many of our rape crisis services are only funded for around 33% of the services they deliver and only 70% of the country has access to twenty-four-seven specialist sexual violence services and these services are less accessible for women in rural areasFurthermore, there are no twenty-four-seven kaupapa Maori-based specialist sexual violence services, meaning that Maori women are even less well serviced than non-Maori women (Taskforce for Action on Sexual Violence, 2009). We have been fighting for sustainable and adequate funding to provide specialist services to the thousands of survivors and their whanau who require support every year. I wrote a submission based on my experience as a worker and the impact the lack of funding has on those of us who work long hours for no money and experience serious burn out and vicarious trauma. I have five minutes next week to speak to my submission and have input into the select committee’s decision on how our sector will be funded.

I am going to include what I plan to say to the committee at hearing. As part of my submission I am planning to talk about a woman I supported a long time ago who I think about often. I want to explain that I usually don’t share the stories of survivors (clients or people I know) because I don’t believe they are my story to tell. However, this particular woman didn’t survive and for me, to tell this story is to remember her and to not forget the profound impact that sexual violence has on individuals and on all the people around them. All the woman and supporters I have ever worked with remind me of this, but this woman and her story is important to me because it was the first time I (as a privileged pakeha, middle class and straight woman) really understood the extent, gravity and injustice of rape and rape culture.

So, as you can imagine five minutes is barely enough time to scratch the surface of all the things I wish I could say to the government about rape and the inadequate funding of the sexual violence sector. I have worked in the SV sector for over five years, doing paid and (mostly) unpaid work supporting survivors, delivering education and doing strategic planning on both local and national levels. The lack of funding to our sector means that we can’t afford to pay any of our staff full time, nor what they are worth, and most people we can’t pay at all and so the majority of support work done in our community is voluntary. The type of work that we do is very difficult and requires huge amounts of emotional, psychological and spritual strength. This type of emotional labour is predomnatinly done by women who are over represented in the sexual violence sector (I say this not to invisibilise the work of many men who also do this work, but to point out it is still largely considered ‘women’s work’). This type of work is routinely devalued and this is reflected in the lack of funding that is provided to our centres to provide services which both change and save lives.

Many people have said to me, ‘but it is your choice to work in this area’ and that is true. But it is also the choice of this government to refuse to provide adequate funding to survivors. It is the choice of this government to say that the work hundreds of women do around the country to provide these services is not important, is not worthy and is not valuable. It is the choice of this government to say that survivors ( the majority of which are women) are not deserving of care.

And by telling us that the work women do is not valuable, this government feeds a rape culture which tells all women that they are not valuable. This government through their deliberate choices to ignore the needs of women reinforces a rape culture which allows a man to abduct a woman, rape her, strangle her, piss in her mouth, drug her, whip her, beat her, spit on her and tell her that she is nothing, that no one cares about her, that she is not important and it doesn’t matter what happens to her.

And this government tells her that this is true by choosing not to fund a service that could help her. This government makes me complicit in abusing her when she comes to the centre in which I work and I tell her that she can’t get counselling because there are 12 other women on the wait list, and we can’t afford to hire any more staff. That the support workers all have to work other jobs to pay their bills because we don’t have enough money to pay everyone, so they may not always be available. 

This government contributes to abusing her by failing to provide support for this woman and thus telling her she doesn’t matter. This government in choosing not to provide services, to which she is entitled to as a human being and also as a victim of crime, creates a culture in which she can say to me ‘I wish he had killed me because that’s what I deserve’. The choices of this government means that instead of going home that night she will throw herself off a cliff.

And this is the reality and the consequences of the choices that you have made. The consequences of your decisions are not abstract, they are tangible and they are painful to survivors, to their families, to the sector and to women and communities in general.

So, I ask you to remember this when it comes to your reccommendations about how to fund this sector . And if as Hekeia Parata once told me when I tried to explain this to her, there is no more money ‘it’s all about the way you cut the cloth’, then I ask you to cut the cloth in a way that reflects that the work I do and the work you do is of equal imporatnce. Cut the cloth to reflect that all survivors are deserving of care and support. Cut the cloth to show that every person is taonga, and we will all do whatever we can to value them. Ahakoa he iti he pounamu.