Trigger warning: sexual assault.
Several months ago, Brock Turner was convicted of raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. He was given six months in jail, to be followed by three years of probation. However, due to good behavior, he was released recently after only three months. The public reception to the outcome to his case has been largely critical, of Judge Persky, Turner, Turner’s family and friends, and the rape culture that has been cultivated over the years by society. People called for recall of Judge Persky, a longer sentence for Turner, even castration.
However, one thing that I heard very little, if anything, about was rehabilitation. Yes, there should be more serious consideration of rape cases and scrutiny of how we treat rapists and victims. Yes, there should be longer sentences given to rapists, and less discretion left to the judges. Yes, rapists need to be held accountable for their actions. Yes, rapists ruin the lives of their victims, and that needs to be addressed. However, just putting people in jail does not solve our problem. Putting people in jail, and indefinitely labeling them as “criminal,” “rapist”…that only makes our problem worse.
Rape is a product of rape culture, which is the product of a lot of toxic things in our society. Expectations of hyper-masculinity, harmful belief systems about relationships and power dynamics, objectification of bodies and individuals, victim blaming, warped perceptions of what is acceptable in private relationships and in public, and other factors normalize and condone the idea of rape. Rape culture is our problem. It is what needs to be fixed.
Restorative justice, which shifts the focus of our criminal justice system to rehabilitation instead of just punishment, is one way to address these factors. Along with social campaigns and early childhood education, there needs to be a change in how we approach people who commit rape. We need to start seeing them as people who can change, people who can be helped, and people who can ultimately realize that what they have done is wrong and go on to be productive members of society. Only then can we begin to recognize how rape culture is affecting everyone, and what we can do to stop it.
A few key points about restorative justice and why we need it:
- Rapists in the United States generally do not get life sentences, so they are likely going to be released into society anyway. If we don’t help them during their time in prison, they will be released the same person they were before, and what is going to stop them from committing the same or a similar kind of crime? The deterrent effect of a few months or even years in jail is nothing compared to the influence of rape culture in society. Some might argue, then, that we should implement mandatory life sentences for rape. But what kind of a society would we be if all we do to criminals is throw them in jail and forget about them? This leads me to my next point…
- Restorative justice requires that we believe in people. I recognize, and can personally confirm, that this is incredibly challenging, especially when someone has committed a hateful, hurtful crime, or harmed someone close to you, or you personally. But if we don’t even try to believe in people, we will just end up with more fear, cynicism, and full jails. And the root causes of the violence and rape would never get addressed. It doesn’t help any of us long term.
- The rehabilitation programs would teach rapists about rape culture, power dynamics, anger and impulse management, healthy relationships, and other relevant topics, as well as provide certain practical skills like improving mental health, teaching self-management, maintaining healthy relationships with drugs and alcohol, teaching skills in prioritizing, etc. It has been shown that the most effective rehabilitation programs (in the context of rape, but also domestic violence and drug offenses) do not just preach feminist theory. They combine those lessons with real-life skills that will help the offender live a self-sufficient, crime-free life once they leave prison. While there has not been extensive research done, we need to shift our attitudes so that we can start spending some time and resources to do that research and find out exactly what the most effective program would look like.
- Restorative justice enhances accountability; it doesn’t sidestep it. Rehabilitation would become a part of the criminal justice system alongside punitive measures like jail sentences. It would not yet replace jail sentences; there is certainly something to be said about society’s current perception of the deterrent effect of jail time. But enforcing rehabilitation programs would show rapists exactly why what they have done is wrong, and how to change their ideas about the world and other people. Throwing someone in jail doesn’t have that aspect of accountability at all.
- Rehabilitation also focuses on the offender instead of the fault of the victim. While the victim needs to be supported in other ways, oftentimes society turns to the victim to blame them for being in the wrong place/wearing the wrong clothes/saying the wrong things. Restorative justice focuses all of the fault on the rapist, but then works to correct the attitudes and actions that led to the rape.
- Given the shift of focus to the offender, I want to be clear that I recognize that survivor support systems need resources and time and people just as much, if not more. However, these ideas are not mutually exclusive – while we do need to prioritize to a certain extent, the support of survivors and the rehabilitation of offenders are so related in tackling the issue of sexual assault that both require time and dedication to break down the issue.
- There are some rehabilitation programs for rapists currently in the United States, but they are mostly voluntary or have not been studied enough to prove their effectiveness. Aside from shifting the public’s mindset about offenders, there needs to be concrete collaboration with legislators, judges, and prosecutors to ensure that rehabilitation programs are funded and filled as a mandatory part of a sentence.
- We might want to say that offenders like Brock Turner, who have not really been forthcoming with remorse or a desire to change, will never change. And there is certainly a small minority of offenders who can not be helped. But how will we really know who they are, and how will we know how much capacity someone has for change once they are separated from the societal forces that have impacted them, if we don’t try to help everyone?
As a strong believer in restorative justice, and someone who hopes to continue to work in the law and nonprofit world to address these issues, I really appreciate all constructive criticism, feedback, and support for this topic. Let me know either in the comments or by messaging me privately what you think. Thanks for reading.