23 Jan 2019

Roastbusters resurfacing shows crucial need for consent education and restorative justice

1:05 pm on 23 January 2019

By Tania Sawicki Mead*

Opinion - Since Newshub aired a two-part interview with Roast Buster Joseph Parker, the most common thread to our collective response has been "why?"

Protesters marched up Queen Street in Auckland.

Protesters march against rape culture in 2013. Photo: RNZ

As our national conversation around how we as a society respond to #MeToo has progressed, this return to old trauma seemed difficult to justify as "in the national interest".

The roast busters case drew widespread attention when it first broke in 2013. It involved a group of teenage boys boasting online about having sex with drunk girls, some of them under-age, between 2011 and 2013.

About 100 girls were identified as potential victims but the boys were never charged - at the time police said they did not have enough evidence to prosecute.

Five years on, the lack of resolution in sexual violence cases remains stubbornly widespread.

Most people who have experienced sexual harm do not go to the police; if they do, the chances of securing a conviction are low, and people who have been through the justice system routinely describe being re-traumatised by the process.

Crucially, there is little evidence to suggest that a sentence of prison does much to help achieve either justice and redress for those that have suffered sexual harm, or accountability and preventing reoffending by those who have harmed.

In short, our current approach is not working for anyone.

The government's actions thus far have been to establish a single entity, the Joint Venture, for family and sexual violence. They've been charged with preparing a national strategy and action plan to address violence.

All well and good, but even the optimists among us will recognise that action plans are long in the making and even longer in the implementing.

Roast Busters member Joseph Parker.

Joseph Parker Photo: Youtube / Hohepa

What happens in the meantime?

The first and most obvious solution that people working in the sector have been saying for a long time is that we need to invest substantially more money and resources into sexual violence prevention, support and education.

The $18 million healthy relationship programme Mates and Dates was a helpful beginning, but so much more is needed.

We need nationwide coverage of kaupapa Māori and other culturally-appropriate support and prevention services, education on healthy relationships and consent for all, services for self-referral for people causing harm, and well-funded public awareness campaigns to encourage behaviour change. It's big, but it's doable.

The more difficult move is figuring out what accountability looks like when a court process can't, or won't, provide redress for victims and offenders alike.

This is where restorative justice can come in; an approach not centered on proving whether a crime was committed, but seeking acknowledgement of harm caused and accountability from those who harmed.

Despite efforts to cast restorative approaches as 'soft' by their detractors, it is hard work - facing the people you have harmed and hearing how your actions have affected them and their families.

It's confronting and challenging and it works.

A majority of victims who participate in restorative justice feel better afterwards and would recommend it to others.

And while accountability and closure for victims are prioritised, restorative justice has been found to reduce offending both internationally and in New Zealand.

It is also much closer to Māori approaches to justice and healing.

There does need to be an avenue for people who have committed harm to be able to make amends.

We know people can learn, and they can change. But there can't be redress without accountability.

And accountability doesn't often happen by itself.

In Parker's interview, he expressed a "hope" that people would have seen him change; a truly restorative process would mean that change was actually demonstrated to the people who were hurt and who need to see it the most.

Restorative processes are not just something that sound good and feel nice; they are a road map of how we deal with trauma, harm and anger in a way that helps those who were hurt to find peace, and those who committed hurt to learn and change.

It's been five years since the Roastbusters forced us to reckon with our country's horrific rates of sexual violence, and in practice, not much has changed.

We need urgent change, change that starts with the seemingly radical idea that we invest in things that work. Let's not wait another five years to begin.

*Tania Sawicki Mead is director of JustSpeak, a youth-led network advocating for transformational change in the criminal justice system. She is based in Wellington, where she has worked on human rights issues for the past 10 years in the community sector, government and in politics.