October 26, 2020 - 9:28am

There’s been recent discussion in Australia over the case of an intellectually disabled teenager called Kimberly, who was sexually assaulted several times at high school by two fellow pupils. One of these boys was asked to leave the school after Kimberly reported that he had raped her, and he was later convicted of more than twenty sexual assault charges involving four children, including Kimberly.

The other boy was suspended for 30 days, but then returned to the school, where he continued to see Kimberly on a daily basis. She was upset about this, but was told by teachers to “stop dwelling”, “move on”, and “get over it”. Eventually, the school arranged a “forgiveness ritual”.

In effect, instead of separating Kimberly from her attacker, the school coerced an intellectually disabled young woman into a hasty form of restorative justice that was in fact nothing more than an effort to make her shut up.

This distressing case highlights the risks associated with a restorative justice approach to sexual violence. The hope among its proponents is that asking criminals to face the people who have suffered as a consequence of their actions will reduce reoffending, but the evidence for this is mixed.

There is some evidence that the process can make victims feel better, particularly victims of a crime like rape which has a shockingly low conviction rate. Something in the region of 1% of rapes in this country are punished with a prison sentence, so for the 99% of victims who don’t see their attacker imprisoned, restorative justice may sometimes provide a source of solace.

But having worked with victims of sexual violence in a previous job, I’m sceptical. I’ve written in these pages before about the naivetĂ© of the prison and police abolition movements, to which the restorative justice movement is closely linked.

These activists seem to have no recognition that physically separating offenders from potential victims is an essential role of the criminal justice system, and while restorative justice might, in extremis, provide the only possible source of comfort and closure for a victim of crime, it should never be seen as an alternative to prison. A criminal justice system that depends entirely upon the goodwill and self-control of convicted criminals is not a wise one.

My fear is that focusing on restorative justice as a solution to sexual violence, rather than working on increasing imprisonment rates, may provide a stealth means of de-emphasising other, more effective, forms of justice that make progressive activists feel uncomfortable. Kimberly’s case is a terrible example of what can happen when actual punishment and protection is replaced with an act of ‘justice’ that, in some cases, is worse than no action at all.

Louise Perry is a freelance writer and campaigner against sexual violence.