Alaska’s domestic violence council explores restorative justice methods in court sentencing

a courthouse
The Dimond Courthouse building, home to the Juneau offices of the Alaska Department of Law, is seen across the street from the Alaska State Capitol on Friday, May 27, 2022. (Photo by Lisa Phu/Alaska Beacon)

In a sunny room that faced towards the Gastineau Channel in Juneau, a group that included a city attorney, a Tribal employee, corrections officers and domestic violence advocates and survivors sat around a circle of desks to discuss how a new vision of justice could reduce domestic violence and increase public health in Alaska.

court order issued this fall lays out the process by which the state’s courts may use restorative justice programs, but those programs are not compatible with domestic violence cases yet. The state’s Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault brought the group in Juneau together to grapple with how courts might do that in the future.

Restorative justice is a method of resolution wherein people who are affected by a crime work together to address the harm caused and put things right, explained two researchers from the University of Alaska Anchorage. It is the opposite of how domestic violence cases are handled now, where the defendant and perpetrator are separated.

Dr. Ingrid Johnson from the University’s Justice Center said the model is intended to solve a problem — data shows that many people who experience harms like domestic violence do not feel like they get justice.

“A lot of victims don’t access our criminal justice system,” she said. “The statistics are around 50% of victims of physical intimate partner violence are actually calling the police when they’ve been victimized.”

Johnson said part of why they do not call, especially in cases of domestic violence, may be because they do not think a response from law enforcement or criminal proceedings will repair the harm they experienced. For the half of crime victims who do report domestic violence to law enforcement, the most recent analysis shows that fewer than half of those lead to a conviction.

“When you start asking victims of crime, you can actually get a list of over 20 different definitions of justice — at least in my research and the research that I’ve seen others doing,” she said.

Johnson showed the group a data visualization where “accountability” was the most prominent definition, followed by other responses, like “belief and acknowledgement,” “rehabilitation” and “connectedness” — conceptions of justice that diverge from traditional sentencing that usually includes fines or jail time.

She said the restorative justice method answers those needs by shifting the focus from the perpetrator of the crime to the effects of the crime itself and how the person who caused harm can fix it.

“It all sounds so fuzzy and utopian,” Johnson conceded with a smile, and her face flushed slightly. But she and Dr. Rei Shimizu brought evidence that the practice is successful in pilot programs in other states.

The case for restorative justice

Some states already use restorative justice programs to address domestic violence. Shimizu, from the University of Alaska Anchorage’s School of Social Work, studies them and said they both reduce recidivism rates and result in greater victim satisfaction.

“It also shifts DV as an individual, ‘hush-hush,’ privatized issue to more of a community public health issue,” she said. “It allows the community to participate in conversations about domestic violence.”

Shimizu said it can be hard for community members to call out domestic violence without a framework for making those acknowledgements of harm result in positive change.

“In a small community where domestic violence is happening, it’s hard for someone to just show up and say, ‘Hey, what you’re doing is wrong,’ or, ‘What you’re doing actually impacts everyone in the community.’ But the restorative justice processes provide a safe platform for everybody to be included in these conversations,” she said.

One of the studies she worked on as a researcher with New York University showed that batterer intervention programs — the rehabilitation model the state currently uses — can reduce new arrests by more than 50% when paired with restorative justice. In another study, restorative justice led to a reduction in mistreatment of children as well.

Lisa Morley, who organized the event for the state’s Council for Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said her goal is to increase statewide understanding of the practice.

“Restorative justice is actually an option now in the court system, especially in the Tribal courts, but it’s not been very widely utilized. And it’s definitely not being utilized for domestic violence,” she said.

She said she hoped the discussions would be a “launching point” for potential development of a pilot project to see if restorative justice could have a positive effect in the state. She organized similar events in Anchorage and Fairbanks as well.

The council has been working on a plan to update its rehabilitation programs for offenders, commonly called “batterer intervention programs.” Incorporating restorative justice into rehabilitation is one of the recommendations from its working group.

Morley said the state needs to strengthen monitoring and follow through for rehabilitation programs.

“If somebody is court ordered to take the class, they could take the class for a couple of sessions and then drop out, and there’s really no consequences,” she said.

Mixed reception from domestic violence advocates

There are concerns with restorative justice: Accused perpetrators have to admit guilt as a starting point, which could impede due process in legal proceedings, and victims must remain safe and not be re-traumatized.

Brenda Stanfill, one of the Talking Circle participants and the director of the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said she was concerned about some of these aspects, but sees the need for change.

“We know that the criminal justice system doesn’t work for anybody right now. If we’re being reality based, if you talk to anyone, they are not satisfied,” she said, pointing to the large number of assault cases that do not get tried in the state.

She said each time a case gets dropped, it sends the message that it wasn’t a big issue. “We hear women say, ‘After the charges were dropped twice, it even made him more bold about what he did, because he would say, ‘You can call the cops, nobody’s going to do anything. They’re going to let me out the next day, and then it’s going to be worse,’ ” she said.

She said anti-violence advocates and politicians used to think the criminal justice system could solve domestic violence, but she said so far it has not.

Stanfill said if restorative justice programs for domestic violence were victim-centered, they might work well.

That feeling was echoed by Saralyn Tabachnick, the Deputy Director for the Juneau domestic violence shelter. She runs its batterer’s intervention programs in the community and in Lemon Creek Correctional Center.

She said she found restorative justice “interesting,” but that victim safety needs to be at the forefront. “Domestic violence involves power imbalance, where someone is abusing power and control to instill fear in someone else. So the idea that those two people could meet and the victim would feel safe… I’m not sure it’s realistic,” she said.

But she and other participants wanted to learn more. The University of Alaska Anchorage will hold a virtual restorative justice panel in March. CDVSA will host another Restorative Justice Talking Circle in Fairbanks next January.

This article was produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 Domestic Violence Impact Fund.

A full list of Alaska shelters and victim’s services providers can be found here.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and X.

Previous articleWith Anchorage schools remote again, another storm hitting Southcentral Alaska
Next articleAmerican Bar Association features panel of prominent Native women lawyers