Editor’s note: This commentary is by Suzi Wizowaty, who is the executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform. She is a former member of the Vermont House of Representatives.I have been known to say, a few hundred times, that punishment doesn’t work. That is to say, it “works” if your goal is to cause suffering. But it doesn’t work if you want to make things better as a result, for example to reduce future crime, because the human beings we punish tend to emerge more damaged as a result — that is, more prone to hurt others, rather than chastened or rehabilitated and propelled to a better, kinder, more responsible life.
The question then becomes, what’s the alternative?
There is an alternative, but look what happens when well-meaning people who want to avoid the destructive consequences of punishment are not able to access the alternative, either because it doesn’t exist or because they don’t know it exists.
Here’s an example (true story): In a semi-public setting, a man assaulted a woman — grabbed her and tried to force himself on her. She got away, was not harmed physically, and immediately told those in charge of the setting. The man was asked to leave the premises and did. The woman did not want to involve the police. Her reason: He was an immigrant and she feared he might be deported, which she felt was an extreme sanction.
(Let me make very clear that he could just as easily have been a long-term Vermonter or a local college student; the point is not that he was an immigrant but that well-intentioned Vermonters have very real concerns about the overreaction of our criminal justice system — in this case potential deportation — and now more than ever.)
Adults who continue to engage in destructive behaviors — whether merely socially unacceptable or truly harmful — often need a more significant intervention.
Reading this, one might have several reactions. That was stupid, he should have been punished. Or yes, that was a generous and right thing to do, because the criminal justice system is unpredictable and racially biased and you can’t count on fairness. Or perhaps something in between, like, that was potentially dangerous; with no consequences, he’s likely to do it again to someone else.
But that’s not the end of the story. What happened next is this: The same man appeared a few months later in the same setting, this time as a security guard, on contract from a local company. One of the workers recognized him and spoke with those in charge. (Another woman who knew of the earlier event immediately fled, in response to her own PTSD panic.) The company was called and a different security guard requested.
What is wrong with this scenario? What’s missing?
What’s missing is any kind of accountability that might support internal change on this man’s part. What’s wrong is the equating of punishment with accountability. Were those involved in the first incident wrong not to involve the police? No. Because in fact in our current system of criminal justice, punishment often precludes true accountability — that is, discourages it and often literally makes it impossible, by prohibiting contact between the two parties.
But then, what might accountability rather than punishment look like? This is where restorative justice comes in. Restorative justice stresses accountability. The process asks some version of the following: What happened (who was hurt?)? What do the various parties need? Who has an obligation to address the needs/repair the harm/restore the relationships, and how will that be done?
Now, I don’t know that a restorative process would have “worked” in this situation. I wasn’t there, and don’t know the parties personally. But the chances are good. We know this because statistically, those involved in restorative processes report higher satisfaction with the process, and the recidivism rate is lower.
It’s important to note that those who spend their lives fighting to end sexual violence have raised legitimate concerns about the viability of a system that assumes participants have equal power (i.e. restorative justice processes); others have noted that the current criminal justice system has a host of problems that render it ineffective at best and harmful at worst. It doesn’t address victims’ needs, and it doesn’t ensure any change on the part of the “offender” (and as noted can result in worse outcomes). Perhaps most significantly, because getting the state involved has the potential to further harm a family, victims often choose not to seek help at all until problems have escalated to the point of life-threatening danger.
But it’s important to note that in the example above, the imagined alternative doesn’t require the woman affected to sit in a circle with the man who assaulted her, to confront him directly, even if supported by community members. That’s one possibility, and it tends to provide satisfaction to those who choose it. But a victim-centered process can have as great an impact when others represent the victim, who may choose not be present.
This particular story has no end. It’s entirely possible that the man featured in it learned something on his own about appropriate behavior with women. However, adults who continue to engage in destructive behaviors — whether merely socially unacceptable or truly harmful — often need a more significant intervention. Not punishment, and certainly not jail, but an experience of being held truly accountable, and allowed to make things right, to the extent possible. That is the alternative that more of us need to know about, and that needs to be made more available to address interpersonal harm.