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Restorative Justice Can Hold Alleged Abusers Like Cosby Accountable, Advocate Says


Earlier this week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out Bill Cosby's sexual assault conviction over a technicality. Cosby served nearly three years and is now free despite being accused of sexual assault by more than 60 women. This case has highlighted yet again how difficult it can be to hold alleged perpetrators of sexual assault accountable through the traditional legal system.

According to RAINN, an anti-sexual violence organization, out of every thousand sexual assault cases, only 28 end in a felony conviction. Restorative justice offers an alternative approach. Accusers confront the accused in a controlled setting, often seeking admission of guilt or an apology. The focus is on the victim's needs, and the results can lead to feeling closure and help reduce post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Jenn Jackson is a professor of political science at Syracuse University, focusing on Black politics and gender and has written about Cosby and restorative justice. Professor Jackson, welcome to the program.

JENN JACKSON: Thank you so much for having me.

MCCAMMON: Before we jump to restorative justice, first of all, what is your reaction to Cosby's release?

JACKSON: So, I mean, I think my reaction to Cosby's releases is bimodal, right? So the first side is that I'm not particularly surprised, right? This is kind of one of the modus operandi processes of those who are very, very wealthy, who are very, very - access to a very, very network to be able to navigate the carceral system in ways that benefit them without taking full account of the communities that they've harmed.

On the other side of this, it's a deep, deep, deep disappointment, right? It's a deep disappointment with the fact that there's this pervasiveness on the side of Cosby and his team to continue to disregard and to ignore the concerns of those in the community that they've harmed, right? So that's - it's a twofold thing. And I think that a lot of people are holding both of those sentiments at the same time.

MCCAMMON: In 2018, you wrote a piece about the link between calls to end mass incarceration and what you argue is a criminal justice system that is hostile to sexual assault survivors. And in it, you write about restorative justice. How does that fit into the context of the Bill Cosby case and his release?

JACKSON: Yeah, I mean, we talk about restorative justice, we have to talk about the first thing, which is harm reduction. And what it means is that there are systemic problems, institutional foreclosures, gaps that keep people from being able to live and thrive in healthy ways, right?

And so harm reduction is really asking our community members, other folks in civic society to say - you know, what is it that is missing here? And how can we reduce those burdens on people who actually are working every day to survive? I tell people all the time, I tell my students, you know, it's really, really hard being poor, right? It's very expensive to be poor because, structurally, we don't have the scaffolding to support folks who are poor and working-class, so harm reduction is the first step.

We have to also think about healing justice. And healing justice is about centering those who have been harmed, centering those who are survivors and victims. We have to think about accountability. We have understand that those folks who have been most directly impacted should be the folks who have the direct decision-making processes about how Cosby is held accountable. And those are the things I think people really struggle with when they think about the carceral state.

MCCAMMON: I wonder, though, if you see a role for incarceration as a punishment in some situations for people who commit sexual assault?

JACKSON: I do not. So I am an abolitionist. And the truth of the matter is - and I wrote this in my 2018 piece about incarceration. What we find is that prisons actually do not correct behaviors. Prisons are another form of harm, right? So when we talk about harm reduction, prisons do not reduce harm; they create new harms, and they create ripple effects of harm.

Prison has not ever been about harm reduction. It's been always about punishment. It's always been about stigmatizing people, about criminalizing people, and about labeling some group as the bad guys and some group as the good guys. And that's not what restorative justice is about. It's not what transformative justice is about. And so what I think about here is if we get away from incarceration as a model, we can move ourselves toward a place where we can start imagining what it looks like for folks to actually be held accountable.

What does it mean if folks who are directly harmed are able to vocalize what they want, right? If they say, I actually just - I want an apology, I want this person to go through therapy, I want this person to sit and listen to our stories, I want this person to pay for this organization that helps young people who have been affected by the same issue, can we imagine a world where people are actually in conversation and we have open dialogue about what it means to be accountable?

MCCAMMON: Survivors of sexual assault often are encouraged to report their assaults to authorities because of the idea that it could prevent the perpetrator from hurting someone else. But we also know that in reality, the majority of assaults are not reported. And when they are, conviction rates are very low. Do you think restorative justice can help with deterrence?

JACKSON: To deter people from something, they have to actually have the light of deterrent (ph) upon the thing they did. And in order to do that, it has to be out. It has to be told to their employers. It has to be told to their friends. And their friends have to say, hey, that's terrible. What you did was wrong, and you did it. I know you did it. It's true. And now you have to do something, differently, right? You have to do something otherwise. You have to be someone new now because the person that you're being is not fair to others. It's making it hard for other people to survive and live.

And that is something we've never done. And I just think that we have to start thinking about ways to actually care for each other. And that includes people who are friends with the Bill Cosbys of the world because that is a big issue, where we have people who say that's just how that person is or, you know, they're just kind of touchy or they're just - you know, whatever the cultural phenomenon is in that community. And that's something we have to talk about as well.

MCCAMMON: Before we let you go, what do you say to people who are fed up and just want the criminal justice system to work better? They don't necessarily want to abolish prisons. They want perpetrators of violent crimes to be held accountable, but they want the criminal justice system to work better, to be reformed. What do you say to those who think restorative justice is just not enough?

JACKSON: When we think about something working better, we first have to ensure that we have the tools and the infrastructure in place for it to do so. And as it stands today, we do not have a criminal justice system in place that can do the very thing that we are asking it to do. So we have to create something else, right?

And so I just want to - it's almost asking, like, a boat to drive on land, right? And so we have to recalibrate, we have to retool, and we have to rebuild. If we want it to do what we want it to do, which is hold folks accountable and to reduce harm, then we're going to have to use restorative justice techniques because that's the only model we have that we actually know works.

MCCAMMON: Jenn Jackson is a professor of political science at Syracuse University. They joined us via Skype. Professor Jackson, thanks so much for your time.

JACKSON: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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