In 2018, Jocelyn Arild made a spontaneous decision to send a Facebook message to the man she says raped her 20 years earlier.
Then, she panicked.
“I was like, oh, gosh, that was a really bad decision. What am I thinking?”
She says she was looking for closure after years of grappling with trauma associated with the assault.
But she didn’t know what to say.
“Because of this giant elephant in the room about what had happened.”
Arild ultimately sought help from Alissa Ackerman, a Fullerton State University criminal justice professor who was practicing restorative justice. It’s a process that brings together people who have caused harm and people who have experienced harm for conversation in a safe, supervised space.
“You address the underlying issues that resulted in the harm in the first place,” Ackerman said. “Most of those underlying issues are conflicts between people. And if you address the conflicts between people, most of that harm is addressed in a meaningful way and it doesn't reoccur.”
Arild worked with Ackerman to plan a facilitated in-person conversation with her alleged perpetrator. She said it took a lot of advanced planning, including persuading the person to seek mental health counseling before they met.
“We did a lot of front loading in terms of, where was I going to sit in the room when we actually met, where would we meet? What would feel safe? What would we do if it didn't feel good?”
Ultimately Arild met with him in a church for four hours. When it was over, she says she felt a sense of relief from the self-blame she’d been experiencing related to the assault.
“Having him say, ‘I raped you’ just completely changed the narrative and took so much of the weight off my shoulders that I had been carrying,” she said.
This June, Ackerman co-founded Ampersands Restorative Justice. She says it’s one of the only restorative justice organizations in California focused on sexual assault.
“I believe that in order to end sexual violence, everybody has to have a seat at the table,” she said.
Alternative forms of justice
Healing from a sexual assault is a lifelong journey, and it looks different for all survivors.
For some, going to the police to make a report is a crucial step. But that’s not the norm — about three quarters of rapes in the U.S. go unreported, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. And many who do report the crime don’t see their perpetrators convicted or even arrested.
Alexa Sardina, a Sacramento State University criminal justice professor and a co-founder of Ampersands, says that’s why alternative options are needed.
“People are looking for something in addition to the healing work they've done on their own, and a part of that is hearing the person that's harmed them be fully accountable,” she said. “And unfortunately, obviously, our criminal justice process doesn't really allow for that without some serious ramifications.”
Sometimes survivors ask for ‘vicarious restorative justice,’ which involves talking to someone who perpetrated sexual assault but wasn’t their assailant. There are also options for family members affected by sexual harm.
Restorative justice emerged in the 1970’s and is sometimes used in prisons, juvenile halls and schools to address gang violence, vandalism and other wrongs. Sometimes, restorative justice models are facilitated through the district attorney’s office when a case is under investigation.
“We see it in the prisons, but we don't see it as a diversion from the criminal legal process,” Ackerman said.
A 2013 study of 22 sexual assault cases that went through restorative justice found that 91% of misdemeanor perpetrators and two-thirds of felony perpetrators successfully completed the program, which required acceptance of responsibility and psychological diagnosis and treatment.
It also found that 82% of participating survivors met diagnostic criteria for PTSD before the intervention, only 66% did afterward.
“Restorative approaches don't cost a lot of money, and they are quite effective when they are done well,” said Michael Gilbert, executive director of the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice.
Some law enforcement agencies and victims’ rights groups oppose restorative justice because of the lack of consequences for the perpetrator.
“Justice is not about gaining a conviction,” Gilbert said. “Justice is about repairing harm.”
Ackerman says restorative justice programs that are specific to sexual assault are few and far between.
“The public just has this distaste for sex crimes,” she said. “People see those who offend in this way as different, and deserving of no mercy or redemption ... this idea that once somebody sexually offends, they will always sexually offend.”
She says they named the nonprofit Ampersands to try to shift that idea.
“The symbol of the ampersand means you can do a terrible thing and still be a good person. We can hold both of those.”
Kevin Lynch, another Ampersands co-founder, got into restorative justice after realizing he’d perpetrated sexual violence. He was part of a vicarious restorative justice circle in 2018 where he talked with several survivors he did not know.
“I had a pretty profound realization when I heard how the women even today — in one case 25 years after being raped — how it still had ramifications in her life,” he said. “It made me realize that the harm that I had caused by raping a woman 40 some years prior was likely still affecting her today.”
Now he tries to convince other men to acknowledge what they’ve done.
“If you can get to the point of acceptance of saying ‘I can live with a consequence of being public,’ it will bring you freedom. And if enough of us do it, it'll change the culture.”
As for survivor Jocelyn Arild, she says finding resolution with the man she says raped her has been a major part of her healing.
“The trauma of the sexual assault has really kind of lifted in a way that I didn't know it could,” she said. “I often think, ‘what would have happened if he would have taken accountability much sooner?’ … I just wish that that avenue had been available to me a decade ago.”
Ampersands Restorative Justice is currently funded by client fees, but they are hoping to eventually run on grants or donations.