Moving beyond the Criminal Justice Paradigm: A Radical Restorative Justice Approach to Intimate Abuse

Article excerpt

This article traces the history of the development of the treatment of domestic violence as a crime in the United States and the conceptual and practical limitations of this approach in addressing this important social issue. An extensive body of research on restorative justice practice suggests that restorative approaches may contribute to reducing and preventing family violence. Drawing on restorative justice principles, an alternative or supplement to criminal justice approaches is outlined for working with all parties involved in abusive relationships.

Key words: aggression, feminism, intimate partner violence, mandatory arrest, patriarchy, restorative justice

History

Public discourse and political debate influence the recognition and naming of social issues. Naming occurs through the assignment of language and the subsequent labels that define the social issue. The question always lingers: who has ownership of the issue? The battered woman's movement began over three decades ago, as a grass roots response, by women, to help other women escape male violence. Offering a theoretical concept of battering, women assumed ownership over the issue and moved it from a private family matter to one of public concern (Schneider, 2000). Their tireless efforts have influenced political agendas across the country, and even beyond. The social problem of intimate partner violence is now a political priority. In the process of defining domestic violence as a women's issue, it left behind the parallel needs of male and same sex victims, as well as children.

In the last ten years, the movement has been led by a powerful and dedicated group of mainstream feminists. Mainstream feminism is a term borrowed from others, and is not meant as a criticism but as a categorization of people who self-identify as "feminist" and adhere to the belief that the primary approach to domestic violence should be a criminal intervention (Satel, 1997). They would argue that criminalization is the only way to address the prevalence of male to female intimate abuse, insofar as such an approach takes, head on, the long history of systematic patriarchal oppression of women in the criminal justice system.

The work of these mainstream feminists has resulted in the identification of domestic violence as a serious criminal justice and public health concern. Angered by the criminal justice system's long history of disregard for a woman's right to live violence-free, mainstream feminist advocates have lobbied for and won legislative reforms that have ultimately criminalized domestic violence through mandatory arrest and prosecution policies. Mandatory policies force police officers and prosecutors to pursue domestic violence cases to the full extent of the law, regardless of the victim's wishes. These legal outcomes have been enhanced by the efforts of mainstream feminists to frame the issue of domestic violence as stemming from patriarchy, insisting that the American public accept this interpretation of domestic violence as the only valid one (Mills, 2003). The passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, reinforced this notion. VAWA 1994 appropriated 1.2 billion dollars for more effective criminal justice responses to victims and perpetrators. This allocation was part of a larger crime bill and, as such, took a criminal justice approach to domestic violence problem solving. Zero tolerance became the battle cry; mandatory arrest and prosecution policies were the strategies used to accomplish it.

Politicians across the country joined these mainstream feminists in support of VAWA legislation. VAWA demonstration projects offered politicians the opportunity to ally with a woman-centered political agenda, leaving behind more volatile debates about equal rights, equal pay and reproductive rights. Interestingly, in 2000 the National Violence Against Women Survey (NVAW) found that most intimate partner victimizations are not reported to the police. …