By Magdalena Castillo
Coming from a university who is a well-known pioneer in the field of Restorative Justice, I suppose I was biased when I joined the conversation about it. It has worked so well for handling petty crimes at my school, and I believe with my whole heart that if restorative justice prevents young students (students who overwhelmingly happen to be black and brown boys and men) from being heavily punished for the same things their White peers do, then it was the exact system we needed in schools.
While I still believe that, I’ve always struggled with the idea of restorative justice on a macro level. In cases of sexual assault and murder, it’s difficult to be accepting of a process that also hears the side of the offender, and in many cases, tries to empathize with them. I struggle to see myself taking the role of mediator in these instances.
However, even in these circumstances, the concept–NOT the practice–of Restorative Justice is what sits well with me as a person who is working to build peace in communities. Even if someone commits an act of sexual assault or crime, while I don’t necessarily think that they should be given the gracious opportunity to defend themselves in a restorative justice program, I think it’s crucial to understand the systems and people that were factors in leading these perpetrators to commit acts of violence and get themselves into conflict; not to feel sympathy or to reduce their punishment in all cases, but rather to identify those structures as ones we need to fix and work on as peacebuilders. For example, men (or women in some cases) who rape should be punished accordingly. It is a revolting and hanus crime, one that makes it difficult for me even to type out without feeling sick to my stomach. But to understand that centuries of patriarchy that socializes men a certain way or structures in place to oppress women or lack of awareness about sexual assault are potentially some of the toxic, yet existing, reasons why people commit these crimes is almost an invitation to peacebuilders to address problems in order to help reduce the number of rapes and assaults and murders that occur in the long-term. Giving capital punishment, for example, to one person is often just and necessary, but what about all the other assaulters and rapists out there? How will we stop them? Or will we just keep putting everyone in jail and have a repetitive, exaughsting an unfair cycle of sexual assault? Restorative Justice in and of itself may not be the answer for larger, more serious crimes like these. But the underlying concept that you should hear why an act of violence was committed from the offender seems to me like a way to identify invisible systems in order to try not to “save” the offender, but improve the future and change the culture.
However, again, I think Restorative Justice as a practice needs to evolve so that it isn’t something that ignores victims or minimizes their experiences. Currently, I believe that it works in some cases but cannot work in others, therefore it is a deeply flawed system. I do believe, though, that if as a society we take the time to rework it, it is promising.