Restorative Justice: An Alternative Path in Sexual Assault Cases?

  • January 10, 2022
  • Jeff Carolin

The following consists of excerpts of an interview our Newsletter Editor Allison Lee had with Jeff Carolin [1].

Q: Many of us have heard of restorative justice in relation to aboriginal individuals or youth accused of a crime. Could you tell us a little bit about the type of restorative justice work that you've been doing with sexual assault survivors?

A: I’d like to start by attributing something to Marlee Liss,[2] who was my client and has specifically asked me to use her name when I’m talking about her case. Marlee was a complainant in a sexual assault case which was on track for a jury trial in the Toronto Superior Court. I don’t think I can put it better than what she said to me, which was that, after she was assaulted, she thought she only had two choices: one was to stay silent and the other was to call the police. She ultimately decided to call the police, but her experience, as she related it to me and ultimately to all involved parties, was that being a witness to the state’s prosecution was itself a traumatizing experience.

One definition of trauma is experiencing something that overwhelms the body's ability to handle it, and sex assault certainly fits in that category. And then to have that event being essentially taken out of her control again in terms of the prosecution – no control over the timing; no control over what would happen; being subject to a rigorous preliminary inquiry cross-examination -- caused further trauma. Going through all these steps, it never felt like it was in her best interests and ultimately her view was that it wasn't. She also felt the process wasn't in the best interest from a public safety perspective because, as she put it: why is the best possible outcome from the criminal justice system’s perspective that this man be convicted and then go to jail for two or three years? How is that going to make me or other potential people who could be assaulted safer? Marlee and I agree that it is a fundamental contradiction of our system that we incarcerate people in violent institutions so they can “learn a lesson” and expect them to be rehabilitated and pro-social contributing members of society once they are released. And I would add that there is no evidence that jail sentences deter other people from committing crimes of this nature either.

I'm trying to continue this work in whatever ways that I can because I think that it’s important that there is a different option, which won't be necessarily appropriate in every case, but which allows justice system participants to choose a non-adversarial path if the parties are willing to do so and to actually take these moments of harm, of very serious harm, and transform them into personal, interpersonal and systemic healing.