What is the Justice System For, Anyway?

I found myself reading this interview with Dr. Mary Koss recently, and while I’m not 100% sure about the prospect of “Restorative Justice”, as she refers to it, I think that often, when we think about child sexual abuse, we fall into the same misconceptions about the legal system that she refers to when talking more broadly about sexual assault.

Namely, that the legal system is not really designed to assist with the healing of a victim.

Her description is pretty apt:

When you put this all together, what we’ve got is an adversarial justice system, where the purpose of the system is to uncover the evidence, weigh the evidence, assign culpability and set punishment. The criminal justice system is woefully inadequate to address the crime of sexual assault.

As she says later in the interview, the justice system has only one customer, the defendant, and only one goal, punishing the defendant. Police and prosecutors exist within that system. That is OK, it’s a necessary thing, but it not going to spend a ton of time treating the victims, and it’s also not going to always result in an outcome that the victim might want.

I’m intrigued by the idea of restorative justice for one big reason. As a society, we seem to be unable to consider the possibility that someone can survive, and overcome, child abuse, unless someone goes to jail, for a really long time, and we need to stop limiting ourselves, and survivors, that way. The reality of the situation is that often, there isn’t enough evidence to charge someone, or to pursue a case. Over-stretched systems like law enforcement and prosecutors aren’t going to have the time and resources to dedicate to a case that they don’t think they can win, so they won’t go down that road. That doesn’t always mean that they don’t believe the victim, (though that happens a lot too, and is influenced by many biases) but sometimes, even when you believe the victim is telling the truth, if you can’t prove it on court, you don’t win.

But, not winning in court does not really have anything to do with what happens next with survivors. They are still here, and still capable of healing. What if we could find a way to provide that help? What would that look like, and what would that take?

These are the hard questions we need to be asking instead of bemoaning every case that doesn’t lead to our definition of “justice”, because the victim is still there, no matter what happens to the abuser. What are we doing for them?

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