Monday, August 1, 2016

Sexual Assault: A Restorative Justice Model

The compelling and articulate statement made by the courageous survivor in the Stanford Rape case highlighted the failings of our criminal justice system. Our adversarial process silences many survivors, however, and therefore perpetrators rarely learn about the long-term effects of their actions, leaving little opportunity to cultivate empathy.  Perpetrators are silenced as well, providing few chances for victims to hear the acknowledgement of harm they so desperately need and deserve.

We’d like to offer a different perspective - a change in the dialogue. We argue that the conversation should shift to harm reduction, promoting restorative and transformative justice. We offer an example of a restorative justice narrative in which a rape survivor and a SOTX group came face to face for a life-changing experience.

What is Restorative Justice?

Restorative justice is concerned with violations of people and relationships, not statute definitions and sentencing guidelines. The process allows victims to be heard, to seek the acknowledgement of culpability they need, and for perpetrators to hear, firsthand, the personal narrative of suffering they have caused that permeates, like a ripple effect, across time and relationships.

For the last two decades there has been considerable debate on restorative justice and sexual violence, but limited empirical evidence exists to inform our understanding its effectiveness. Still, several courageous survivors have opened up publicly about the profoundly positive impact it has had on their healing. In these instances, survivors like Carmen Aguirre, Joanne Nodding, and Dr. Claire Chung, have come face to face with their perpetrators and have found peace and closure; however that closure can be found in other restorative justice frameworks.

For almost a decade we have extensively researched sex offender policies and treatment practices, both independently and as co-authors. We have maintained a friendship close enough that in early 2014 Alissa chose Jill as one of the first people to whom she disclosed her own rape -- fifteen years after it occurred.  

Alissa never reported the rape that happened when she 16, though it had profound impacts on her life. In silence, she endured intense flashbacks and nightmares of the assault. For over a decade and a half she lived with general and social anxiety, believing it would never (and could never) cease.

She became a sex crimes researcher, in part to better understand why people commit such crimes, and she worked diligently to compartmentalize the personal from the professional.  She was terrified that people would not take her work seriously if they knew she was a survivor. Jill assured her that her narrative was important to share.

Alissa began speaking publicly sharing her unique role as a sex crimes expert and survivor, but believed the effects of the rape would be with her forever. Then she agreed to participate in two group therapy sessions with men convicted of sexual crimes:

To say I was apprehensive about walking into that room is an understatement. During the course of my career I have come face to face with many individuals who have committed sexual violence, but I always had my researcher hat on. I became very good at compartmentalizing. In this case, I knowingly took off my research hat and allowed myself to be vulnerable.

As soon as we sat down, I saw that the men in the room were far more nervous than I was. I knew I had the opportunity to provide insight into what it is like to live life in the aftermath of rape. I explained the flashbacks and nightmares, the impacts on my relationships, the anxiety, the guilt I felt when I snapped at my child because he jumped on my back. I believed this would help them to understand the consequences of their actions. I had no idea that sharing so vulnerably would be life-altering for me.

I have always maintained that if given the opportunity, I would, without hesitation, sit face to face with my perpetrator. So when I was asked what I would say to my perpetrator if I had the opportunity, I did not hesitate to answer honestly and from my heart. I challenged these men to think about their actions form a different vantage point and they challenged me to see them as human beings and not just the label that has been placed on them. Even though in my role as a researcher and academic I knew this to be the case, by the end of the evening I came to the personal conclusion that we were not so different.

I walked away from the evening a different person.  These men helped me find the closure I had been seeking for more than half my life. I now have space  to focus my attention on other important aspects of who I am. I am no longer fighting the bogeyman in my dreams.  I may not have known my perpetrator, but I know he is a person. He has a face and a name. He committed a terrible act of violence that I never received “justice” for, but he is no longer the monster I wrestle with.  Going through the criminal justice process would not have helped me to heal. I would have been re-traumatized and it wouldn’t have changed having been raped. Participating in these sessions brought me justice, peace, and answers to questions I’ve pondered for 17 years.

I have always known that my identity involves so much more than the label “rape survivor.” I now fully understand that my perpetrator is so much more than a rapist. I forgave him for his actions many years ago, this recent experience allowed me to forgive myself.

Jill started her career as a child protection social worker, investigating child abuse cases, helping victims and counseling survivors. In the early 1990s, when she was treating survivors at a mental health clinic, she asked the psychologist running the sex offender treatment program: “Why do your clients do these things to my clients?” He answered: “Why don’t you sit in on a treatment group and see for yourself?” She explains:

I did that, and I never left. I’ve been counseling offenders for 24 years. Why do I do it? I do it because it’s a crucial public protection service. I help these men to understand their behavior and learn how to prevent it from happening again.  How do I work with “those people?” Well, they are just people. Does treating them even help? Yes, research tells us that proper psychological interventions can reduce the likelihood of reoffending.

When Alissa came to talk to the men in my treatment groups, I knew they were anxious. They were afraid of her anger, her judgement, her shaming. We prepared the week before by generating a list of questions they would want to ask their own victims. We speculated about what she might need to hear from them. When she arrived, they were surprised when she approached them with curiosity and compassion. As she told her story, they were able to hear the various, subtle, and insidious ways that her assault has permeated through all aspects of her life. They were able to understand the far-reaching impact to victims of sexual assault and everyone else in their lives. Of course these men always knew that what they did was wrong and illegal, but now they were better able to appreciate the psychological harmfulness of abuse, why it was wrong, and how it leaves such a lasting scar. Several of them have requested to contact Alissa directly, and they all want to invite her back for another session. Their capacity for empathy has been forever altered, in an extraordinary and unique way.

A society that measures justice only in the length of a prison term is limited in its capacity to effect change and reduce harm. Let’s move the conversation toward understanding the needs of survivors in their healing journey, and fashion our responses accordingly.

 Dr. Alissa Ackerman is an Associate Professor of Social Work and Criminal Justice at University of Washington Tacoma. 

Dr. Jill Levenson is an Associate Professor of Social Work at Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida. 


  1. This is a wonderful report. Restorative Justice is important and if done well can lead to impacting and lasting change.

  2. Well done. I've long been a proponent of restorative justice. I'm so pleased both Alissa and Jill took the time to articulate the process so well. Perhaps others will get on board after reading this as the benefits of this approach are a win for us all.

    Thank you