Special Report: Call for restorative justice services in sex crime cases

Sex crime victims should have the chance to face their attackers through restorative justice, rather than relying solely on the "heartbreaking" adversarial system for closure, a report claims.

Special Report: Call for restorative justice services in sex crime cases

The study, launched today, is based on the views of 149 research participants, including 30 victims of sexual crime and 23 sex offenders.

It claims that, in addition to causing hurt and anxiety among victims, the current system is so adversarial that it is likely to result in the offender denying that they committed any offence.

Sexual Trauma and Abuse: Restorative and Transformative Possibilities, makes a number of key findings, including:

-Victims and offenders experience “unacceptable and at times debilitating delays in the administration of justice”;

-There are information gaps and deficits regarding the processing of cases, adding to trauma for victims who feel “peripheral” to the criminal proceedings;

-The current system is “adversarial”, and “punitive approaches” taken in public towards those convicted has the effect of offenders denying their offences, and taking the risk of the State proving the case against them.

The report was written by Marie Keenan of the School of Applied Social Science, University College Dublin, in collaboration with restorative justice body Facing Forward.

Among the recommendations is that restorative justice services be made available to victims of sex crime under the forthcoming Cosc National Strategy for 2015 to 2020, and that a three-year pilot project of restorative justice in certain cases be established “as a matter of urgency”.

It also calls for the expansion of support services for the “secondary” victims of sex crimes, such as family members, and that the Government, gardaí and other aspects of the criminal justice system work to reduce the “unacceptable delays” in investigations.

Dr Keenan said she wanted the Government to consider the recommendations and stressed that any restorative justice programmes should run in addition to, rather than as an alternative to, the current criminal and civil systems.

She said there had been an “unwritten promise” that entering the justice system would deliver for victims, but that because of issues such as the delays in cases coming to trial, it had often not done so.

She said restorative justice should always be initiated by the victim, and some victims in the report had said they wanted it available as an option, particularly in cases of abuse within families.

“They want to make a statement,” said Dr Keenan. “They want to face their fears by facing the offender. They want to bring an end to the kind of relational connection [with the perpetrator] they never chose in the first place.”

Reasons for coming face-to-face with your attacker

Could restorative justice — where the victim of a sex crime comes face-to-face with the perpetrator — help both sides? The author of a new report believes so, writes Noel Baker

“They want to make a statement. They need to face their fears by facing the offender. They need to ask him a few questions: why me? How could you hate someone so much?”

Marie Keenan, the author of a new report into sex crimes and the potential for Restorative Justice (RJ) to be used in such cases after a conviction, outlines some of the reasons why a victim might want to come face-to-face with the person who attacked them. She makes a compelling argument for, at the very least, trying RJ on a pilot basis in conjunction with the current criminal justice and civil court systems.

She is not alone. The report, to be launched today, features input from both victims of sexual crime and offenders, and many believe RJ could be a valuable option.

Reporting rates for sexual crimes, while on the increase, are still low, and the rate of conviction is lower still. According to Dr Keenan, there was an “unwritten promise” made in the aftermath of the publication of the SAVI Report in 2002, that people urged to report the crimes would see justice done on their behalf as a result.

Instead, she argues, “the rate of attrition has also gone up” — that is, the number or complaints that fall out of the justice system at various points, up to and including the court stage. It outlines how 27% of rape complainants between 2000 and 2004 withdrew their complaint from the DPP.

According to Dr Keenan, delays in cases coming to court are just one problem in the current, adversarial system. The civil system, too, has issues, not least the amount of money both victim and offender need to meet potential costs.

The report, entitled ‘Sexual Trauma and Abuse: Restorative and Transformative Possibilities’, outlines how victims who feature in it and who had never experienced restorative justice and knew little about it until they received explanatory documents in advance of the interview, had been thinking, imagining and fantasising about questions they wanted answers to from the offender.

According to the report, the victims expressed a deep need to understand the motivation behind the crime and to confront the offender.

One judge interviewed said: “The victim first gets acceptance, validation, the story is true, and that’s important. And it’s unequivocally accepted around here is the perpetrator accepting it. That’s a big thing.”

According to Dr Keenan, RJ would not work instead of the current system, but alongside it. It would begin on a pilot basis for three years, undergoing annual reviews, and would only operate in cases where there has been a conviction. It would only ever be initiated by the victim, although the offender could indicate an interest in engaging with the agency in charge, without having to contact the victim. Dr Keenan also argues that it would be beneficial for the offender, arguing that many offenders would like to undergo rehabilitation programmes in prison but cannot due to a lack of resources.

Victims of abuse in the family, in particular, who feature in the report are keen on RJ, as under the current system the only way to bring the abuser to account was through the courts. RJ, as operated in Belgium and New Zealand, could be another avenue.

As things stand, this exchange from the report sums up some of the current problems:

-Victim: “We wouldn’t have gone to court, we were forced.”

-Interviewer: “There was no other option?”

-Victim: “There was no other option. We had no other option and everyone said ‘you are really brave’, we weren’t.”

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