When a sexual assault survivor walks into Alexandra Fulcher’s office at Occidental College, it’s the first step in a process fraught with consequences for both the survivor and the accused.
If Fulcher, the school’s Title IX director, launches an official investigation, the survivor could be asked to recount their trauma and cross-examined about it in a live hearing. Their alleged assaulter could be expelled.
But for the past year, survivors at Occidental have had another option. They can participate in a restorative justice conference with the person who harmed them, in which that person hears about the impact of their actions, takes responsibility and commits to a plan to help repair the harm — and prevent it from happening again.
The conferences draw on a long tradition of restorative justice, a philosophy that eschews punishment in favor of coming up with collective solutions to address violence and harm within a community.
A handful of California colleges have recently begun using restorative justice in cases of sexual assault and harassment, or are seriously considering it. And Fulcher said it’s a path that an increasing number of survivors at Occidental are choosing.
“This age group, at least at Oxy, is less interested in punitive options,” she said.
One argument for making restorative justice available is that it may encourage more survivors to come forward. An overwhelming majority of survivors of campus sexual violence never file a report, and of those that do, few choose to pursue disciplinary action, said David Karp, director of the Center for Restorative Justice at the University of San Diego.
Evidence of success
While there’s little data available about the effectiveness of restorative justice in preventing future sexual assaults, some studies of youth convicted of other crimes have shown that those who participate in restorative justice conferences are less likely to be rearrested.