The power and potential of restorative justice to address and prevent domestic violence

Lucia Corral Pena and Mimi Kim sitting down together

Senior Program Officer Lucia Corral Peña met with Executive Director of Creative Interventions Mimi Kim for a candid conversation about the power and promise of restorative justice in the realm of domestic violence.

Lucia Corral Peña: Our vision for restorative justice is anchored in the Foundation’s work to break the cycle of domestic violence, in our values of equity and possibility, and in our belief that in order to be effective we need to expand our partnerships, ideas, and solutions. As an alternative to the systems currently in place, restorative justice can offer survivors, children, and those who cause harm a different option that allows for healing and support before violence becomes an entrenched behavior that has far-reaching consequences. For communities, it also can offer a way to constructively engage in the issue of domestic violence and build new social networks and connections that create a safer environment for everyone involved.

We know that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to address and prevent domestic violence, and what’s currently in place works for some, but not all. That’s why we’re investing in courageous leaders like Mimi Kim, sujatha baliga, and others, as well as supporting the nation’s emerging efforts to apply restorative justice to domestic violence prevention through the Community Restorative Justice Solutions project. This innovative model has the potential to interrupt the cycle of family violence earlier and explores how it can meet the needs of our most marginalized populations. There are no easy answers, but if nothing changes, then nothing changes.

Join me in the conversation below to learn more.

Lucia Corral Peña: Congratulations, you were recently mentioned in a book I am a new fan of, “Decriminalizing Domestic Violence” by Leigh Goodmark. In your own words, why do you think we need alternatives to the criminal-legal system to address domestic violence?

Mimi Kim: Thank you. Leigh’s book represents one of a growing number of works that take our need to find radically new, non-law enforcement solutions seriously. What we also find is some of these “new” approaches turn back to the “old” (for example, holding a conversation about conflict in a circle is hardly new) — and build them to work under current conditions. As someone who has worked within the anti-domestic-violence field since the late 1980s, I am very aware of how the field moved away from community responses and creative safety strategies and instead turned to a more rigid set of responses reliant on shelters and our collaboration with the police and the criminal justice system for survivor safety. This essentially meant that we, as a field, were no longer asking survivors what they wanted, but were telling survivors to flee their situations and call the cops on their abusive partners to resolve violence. You can imagine how many survivors didn’t want to leave their partners or wouldn’t or couldn’t call the police. By having a one-dimensional set of responses and deeming anything else unsafe, we left countless survivors with no support and no other options. While telling survivors to flee violence and call 911 may make sense to our system of crisis shelters and police, we weren’t necessarily reducing risk for the survivor. Instead, we told them what we thought was right for them. If those options weren’t what they wanted or needed, we often left them completely on their own.   

This reality led many of us to ask hard questions. How many survivors have felt trapped by our narrow solutions? What can we do before, or instead of, calling the police or forcing a survivor to leave? What can we do when we know that so many people (think about immigrants — undocumented or not) will absolutely not call the police?

Lucia: What’s different about restorative justice and how are you measuring success?

Mimi: Restorative justice is not a new approach. It has been used in contemporary systems to deal with property crimes, harms committed by young people, and conflict within schools. It’s also not new if we think of indigenous forms of justice that have been key in informing many of the restorative justice models we see today. The application of restorative justice to domestic violence is relatively new — and the rising interest that people now have in its application to domestic violence is definitely new. The model includes a range of methods for addressing violence based on dialogue and accountability that involves survivors, the person who caused harm, and their family or community members. We brought together a crew of people very experienced in violence intervention; the support of people who have worked, some for decades, on restorative justice; and partner organizations serving a very diverse community. We also have a robust evaluation that we have designed, tested, and are now implementing. All of this is with the dedication to really learn how, why, and what works for survivors, and how it could work for many more. 

This work also includes family- and community-level objectives including family and child well-being and community engagement that weaves social networks of support and builds connectedness. If successful, we could do much more than simply intervene in cases of domestic violence; we could create stronger systems of support within communities — with sustainable long-term impact on communities, families, and futures. We can also build the capacity of community-based organizations to provide restorative justice options that are driven by those most impacted by violence and that can provide safety and opportunities for accountability and repair.

Mimi Kim

Lucia: We know that this model thoughtfully integrates survivor safety, can you share more about how it does that?

Mimi: One important feature of this innovative project is that we are bringing together people who have worked with violence for years. We have all known about and dealt with the most lethal cases of domestic violence. Many of us have lost the lives of people we have worked with. We don’t walk into this naively — but we all believe that we can do better and expand options for survivors. We also know we need to lean on each other to create a restorative justice response that works across a lot of different situations and communities.

We have several values at the center of this project. Safety is central. At every point of our protocol and questions and evaluation there are multiple questions about safety — asking this in different ways to emphasize that we all need to think about safety all of the time. We stand together with survivors in risky situations and are willing to take our own risks to create more humane and sustainable solutions to violence — ones that may be much safer and more effective in preventing further violence.

It is also important that we learn more about how to appeal to people who do harm to be involved in an engaged and completely non-violent way. And that we have a process that they ultimately find is beneficial to them, too — not in terms of getting out of responsibility but of deepening their sense of responsibility.

Lucia: This sounds very promising, but we know that some may consider new approaches outside of the criminal-legal system as taking domestic violence further away from the public realm and making it a more private issue. Is that something to be concerned about?  

Mimi: This is NOT the privatization of violence. If anything, it holds potential to expand who can support and be accountable to survivors beyond police and domestic violence advocates.  It is deepening our responsibility to others and building our collective ability to talk about and find solutions to domestic violence. The restorative justice process can actually extend the circle of involvement from one or two private actors (survivor and the person who has caused harm) — or private actors and a professional — to include a broad network or community of people actively engaged around the issue. As we develop this approach further, it has the potential to raise the public’s ability not to hide violence but to recognize how normal and pervasive it is — and, in turn, increase the public’s willingness and likelihood to take action; to actually step up and come together to resolve and prevent violence. We’d like to reach the point where people know what restorative justice is; know where they can go for support and have many options available; are confident that restorative justice can have positive results; and, over time, can bring the values and skills of restorative justice to their own families and communities. This vision can raise the public conversation regarding violence, destigmatize being a survivor, and can encourage those who have done harm to talk about their violence and find support from their most trusted people in order to bring this violence to an end.

Lucia: What is the promise of restorative justice and how can it help heal survivors and families experiencing domestic violence?

Mimi: Will restorative justice bring about healing — or aid with healing in cases of domestic violence? We think so. However, we are careful about naming healing as a goal. Healing is a very personal process. We hope that this process supports healing — and we also need to let people decide for themselves where, how, when — and even if — healing is a priority for them. Will this work for everybody? We do not come to this work with the idea that it will work for everybody — there is no single solution that will. What we do believe is that this is what some people have been asking for and that this may be what some people choose if they are given this as a choice. Whatever we learn will help us improve how restorative justice can work and make it available to more and more people. 

These days, a lot of us are hearing about restorative justice as an option. I think that on-the-ground practice and time to reflect are key to doing this well. Pilot projects that are thoughtfully constructed can give us much needed information about what works and how. This opportunity to evaluate the project over time provides evidence regarding how restorative justice can work for many survivors and families. This isn’t the world we have now, or yet. But it’s the world we’re trying to create — and are, frankly, obligated to create.

We are, in many ways, at a time of new beginnings, but the pathway here has been created by so many who have come together to create collective solutions to violence. We have an opportunity to take these gifts, apply them systematically in the context of a local community and to the devastating issue of domestic violence and observe mindfully for what safety, accountability, repair and violence prevention can look like. Yes, we can also see if people experienced healing through these processes. We cannot hide behind what I believe to be the excuses of the past, but must take the responsibility to forge ahead. 

Lucia Corral Pena and Mimi Kim

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