What do we do? As more women come forward with stories of powerful men behaving in ways that range from demeaning to horrifying, it’s becoming clear that we need a new templates for justice. What, for example, do we do with Al Franken? He has admitted to forcibly kissing and groping Leeann Tweeden during a USO tour in 2006. Franken didn’t break any laws, and unless more women come forward, it seems clear that he’s an ass, but it’s possible that he’s not a predator. What a relief?
Writing in The New York Times, Michelle Goldberg thinks Senator Franken should step down (paywall) to serve as an example. Kate Harding, a feminist and professor who studies rape culture (paywall) imagines a different course of action. Tweeden has accepted his apology. What do amends look like in this situation?
We can’t and shouldn’t put all the Al Frankens in jail. We can’t fire everyone. We can’t write a front page article about every woman who has ever been harassed or assaulted or raped—as Rebecca Traister recently pointed out, there’s already a hierarchy of victimhood emerging. The question of whose abuse is newsworthy is ugly and only perpetuates the status quo of race, class, and access that allows powerful men to get away with harassment in the first place. As Sarah Leonard writes in The New York Times, “It’s unlikely many newspapers care about a disgusting night-shift manager at the local Denny’s.”
There should be a way to move forward, meaningfully, for victims and harassers alike.
Sarah Silverman grappled in a very raw way with this question on her show this week. “I love Louie,” she said of Louis C.K., with whom she’s been friends for 25 years. “But Louie did these things, both of those statements are true. So, I just keep asking myself, can you love someone who did bad things?”
There is a model that answer Silverman’s plaintive question. It’s called restorative justice, and it’s proven to be incredibly effective. Some elements are even specifically designed to address sex crimes.
The basic concept is that when someone commits a crime there’s an effect that ripples out, to the specific victim and to the larger community—but that it also affects the person who commits the crime. Restorative models are structured and implemented differently in different cities and states in the U.S., but the common thread is a focus on repair, rather than punishment. Many are built around restorative justice panels, in which the person who committed a crime meets with the victim, as well as a small circle of trained volunteers and restoration professionals to find a solution. For non-violent crimes these community-based solutions often function in lieu of jail time, and opens up a world of possibility to a justice system chokes with minor drug offenses and property crimes.
Sometimes the process works to alleviate the suffering caused by more serious crimes, even homicide. Take Sharletta Evans, a woman from Denver whose toddler son was killed in a drive-by shooting. More than a decade after his murder she went through a restorative process, meeting her son’s killer in prison. “I’m not at peace with him spending the rest of his life in prison. I’d like for him to receive another opportunity to come back into society and be functioning,” she says.
The concept is also moving outside of criminal justice, into schools and workplaces. Studies have overwhelmingly shown that class, race and ethnicity have a huge effect on how children are disciplined in schools. Restorative justice in the classroom uses circles, in which everyone in the community sits in a circle and talks out the issue. It might sound a little kumbaya, but the circle is aggressively non-hierarchical. Each person has their turn in order, with no interrupting or cross-talk.
A lot of what holds women back exists in gray areas. I’m not going to claim female moral purity, but I do think that many victims instinctually reject the idea that furthering the cycle is useful in any way. On the interpersonal level, restorative justice moves away from the simplified binary of innocence and guilt, and instead focuses on responsibility and accountability.
I volunteer at my local community justice center. With other volunteers and justice center employees, we offer our support and feedback to individuals who were recently incarcerated through circles of restorative justice. These Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSAs) started with a small community in Canada trying to figure out how to deal with serial sex offenders when they were released from prison. They came to the conclusion that everyone would be safer if offenders were folded into society and supported instead of being cast out and feared. And it worked. A 2009 study found that participating in a CoSA reduced recidivism by more than 70%.
People want a second chance. The guys I work with wish they could go to college, get better jobs, pay back their debts. They feel shame and guilt about the crimes they committed, and long for a way to make meaningful amends.
We can incorporate restorative justice into our lives, schools and workplaces by implementing the philosophy of the circle—making sure every person has the opportunity to speak, and feels free to remain silent if they wish. We can help victims identify what they need, and offenders to make amends. We can think outside of guilt and innocence. We can move forward with purpose. We have to.