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UCI Initiative Addresses Sexual Assault and Criminal Justice System

By Eliza Partika

UCI’s Initiative to End Family Violence hosted its first event for Domestic Violence Awareness Month at the UC Irvine Education Building last Friday. Professor Donna Coker, a nationally-recognized expert in domestic violence law and policy and a law professor at the University of Miami, spoke regarding the emerging field of restorative justice for survivors of sexual assault and domestic abuse.

Coker began her lecture with the idea that the criminal justice system interprets social problems and other forms of inequality as crimes rather than considering the social components of specific situations.

“Specifically, crime logic refers to a set of beliefs that dominates not only the criminal justice system but popular culture,” said Coker. “Those beliefs are a focus on individual culpability rather than collective accountability, rendering social determinates as irrelevant, organized as innocent victims against bad actors.”

Coker stressed the importance of intersectionality in the creation of restorative justice, a method which presents victims with a therapeutic form of justice as opposed to prosecution and trial. Victims are given control to determine what is repairing for them, rather than having the system determine it for them.

In basic practice of restorative justice, the victim, or the complainant, has an opportunity to talk to the perpetrator, or respondent, about what happened to them and how it affected their lives. The respondent then has the opportunity to admit to the conduct and agree upon a way, through support counseling, to change his or her behavior. Mutual support is given to the complainant and respondent throughout the process, fostering an empathy that is not shown in the harsh reality of criminal sentencing. After counseling, there is a follow-up to make sure that the respondent has kept up with the reparative plan that was agreed upon to work towards behavioral change, resulting in a more fulfilling and lasting effect on both parties involved.

Coker stressed that restorative justice should not be confused with mediation, which occurs when the parties involved are expected to have a relationship after the session. Restorative justice is a process meant to give closure and promote change.

Coker pointed out a number of different ways universities and the criminal justice systems can better educate people about sexual assault. She advocated for an increased awareness of the social determinants of rape such as gender, race, socio-economic status and  alcohol consumption, which she argued is the most frequent determinant of rape.

Coker said that many social movements and campus assault organizations ignore alcohol incapacitation as a factor of assault and instead use rape as a jumping off point for their own campaigns.

Citing Stanford’s new alcohol bans put in place after the Brock Turner case, Coker described how many feminist movements protested the ban, contending that alcohol was not the reason Turner committed rape. Coker said that these movements believed Turner to have always been a rapist, and argued that he was using alcohol to “escape culpability.”

“Despite strong empirical evidence that heavy drinking is associated with sexual assault and empirical evidence that limiting access to alcohol can significantly reduce sexual assaults,” Coker said, “some feminists responded quite negatively to Stanford’s new drinking policies.”

Coker stressed the importance of providing support for victims to give them “the courage to no longer put up with assault.”

“The significant number of young women who reject the label ‘rape’ to describe what happened to them, to describe experiences that would clearly match the legal definition of rape, do so because they feel a contradiction,” Coker said.

That contradiction, according to Coker, involves whether or not the person experiencing the assault felt like they were still an independent person who did not have to be ashamed of the things that had happened to them.

Coker advocated for university bans on alcohol, as she cited a 1.8 fold increase of sexual assaults at schools known for heavy drinking versus schools with bans on heavy drinking. However, as Coker mentioned, the Unites States Department of Education (DOE) doesn’t push alcohol bans.

UCI’s Initiative to End Family Violence will host two more events in October; on Oct. 4 from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., Dr. Mimi Kim from California State University Long Beach will lecture on “The Feminist Anti-Domestic Violence Movement and the Paradoxical Pursuit of Criminalization.” On Oct. 13 from 12 p.m. to 1:30 p.m., Dr. Mandy K. Mount, the director of UCI’s CARE program will lecture on “The Neurobiology of Trauma.”