Recently, Congresswoman Annie Kuster (NH-02) attended a screening of “Unbelievable,” a Netflix series detailing the experience of survivors of the 2008-2011 Washington and Colorado serial rape cases. Kuster is a strong advocate for victims of domestic and sexual violence. She took the occasion to emphasize the importance of listening to victims; the series tells the story of a young woman who reports being raped, then recants when she realizes the police don’t believe her.
Kuster also highlighted her cosponsorship of H.R. 777, which provides much-needed resources to state and local law enforcement agencies to conduct forensic analysis of DNA evidence collected from crime scenes, including untested rape kits.
HR 777 is especially important to believing victims, because rape kits and forensic evidence can be critical components of justice, but it’s well to remember, especially where domestic and sexual violence is concerned, that Justice wears a blindfold.
What is that blindfold? Often, it’s prejudice, but it also has other elements woven into its fibers. One blinding fabric is the belief we all know what a victim looks like: once one person is labeled “victim” of a crime and another person the “perpetrator” evidence can be categorized accordingly.
Practiced abusers know this and often try to turn the tables on their victims by making their own accusation or claiming to be the victim themselves. When this happens, it’s up to the police to figure out who’s credible and who’s lying, an extremely subjective exercise.
A justice system that puts people in boxes labeled “victim” and “offender” can misfire badly when the “offender” has less power than the “victim.” Restorative justice is meant to make things more equal; in these days when words like “redemption” have fallen out of fashion, restorative justice is sold to the public as protecting victims’ rights. But just as prejudice exists in society, it exists in the court system. Women are punished more harshly than men for the same crimes, and young people are considered more dangerous than adults – although the majority of crimes are committed by adult men.
When domestic violence victims enter the system, they can be further victimized by a court system that doesn’t believe them.
Naomi Sayers, a Native lawyer and activist in Canada and a survivor of domestic violence, writes, “I was the one who was arrested and I was the one who was considered the offender, and not the victim... The restorative justice route forced me to apologize for me fighting back instead of taking a beating.”
Sayers criticizes restorative justice that, for instance, requires cooperation between domestic violence victims and their abusers. “In cases of domestic violence, it is not always the offender that is the one who does the victimizing. Rather, the offender may also be the victim, like in my case.”
Sayers continues that in juvenile justice, which is often considered the right place for restorative justice, “For young people, they are often committing crimes that are situational to their circumstances. For instance, young people may run away from their situation at home because home life, to them, is not safe and nurturing. Often times, young people run away from a home that is filled with abuse and victimizing situations. Young people don’t run away for fun. Also, young people don’t commit crimes for fun. Again, more often than not, young people are criminalized for behaviours that are done out of survival.”
Diversion courts, such as the one in Windsor County, have similar aims and are prone to making similar mistakes. This is where Kuster’s second initiative, putting more money into the court system for investigation and evidence-gathering, is critical. It’s not enough to believe victims. They need proof, for their own protection.