Pros and Cons of
Criminal Justice Involvement

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Sometimes a family has no choice in whether or not their story is reported to authorities.  This is the case if the survivor is still a child and mandatory reporting applies.  Others will have to make a choice.  Every situation is different.  There are no easy answers or shortcuts.  Here are some things to consider if you are in a position to choose. (I am not an attorney and this is not legal advice.  See guidance on finding a lawyer.)

 

Possible benefits of reporting an offense and pursuing legal action

  • Many survivors find it healing and empowering to tell their story to someone who affirms them, takes it seriously, and keeps it in a legal file, regardless of whether it leads to criminal prosecution.

  • Once a report is made to law enforcement, the survivor becomes eligible for victim services such as state-sponsored counseling, compensation for losses, etc.

  • If the person who caused the sexual trauma is still a juvenile (the actual age varies depending on what they did and where it happened), reporting now may save them from being charged as an adult later on, and will allow them to get help sooner.

  • Supporting a survivor through the reporting process is a concrete way to show them that the harm which was done to them is being taken seriously. 

  • Even the possibility of criminal consequences can motivate the responsible party to face the depth of harm they have caused and overcome resistance to seeking therapy.  If the possibility of conviction isn’t enough motivation, a sentence imposed by a judge may be necessary.

  • Many therapy systems for offenders, whether outpatient, residential, or detention-based, are available only to those who have been sentenced by the legal system.

 

Drawbacks or disadvantages to the criminal legal process

  • Criminal convictions are rare in any case of child sexual abuse.  If a survivor reports in hopes of a conviction and sentence, anything less than a plea or verdict of guilty can leave them feeling doubly violated--first physically, then legally.  

  • The criminal justice system is slow, time-consuming, and can be very confusing.

  • Systems designed to help and heal, including therapy and human services, may have to take a back seat to the requirements of the criminal justice system.  For example, sometimes a person who knows they caused harm will feel ready to take responsibility, and the survivor is craving an apology.  But attorneys will advise both not to have any contact until the criminal case is resolved, which often takes over a year.  

  • Navigating the legal system takes at least some of the family’s focus off the harm that was done and the process of healing.  Even the possibility of a criminal case puts parents under a heavy burden of fear and uncertainty.  This can sap the coping skills they so desperately need to support both children. 

  • The family may face the financial burden of paying for court-ordered treatment, hiring an attorney, or other legal expenses.

  • Once someone gives their testimony to law enforcement, no matter how sensitive the place or manner, they lose control of what happens to that testimony.  Their words can be misunderstood, questioned, or twisted by attorneys or authorities on either side.  Survivors will not have the last word on legal decisions such as what charges to bring and what plea deal to accept.  This can be re-traumatizing, given that loss of control is a critical part of the experience of being sexually violated.  

  • The criminal justice system is a blunt, slow, and imprecise weapon.  Laws are written by politicians, not neurologists or child psychologists.  Most laws that apply to sexual violations are based on assumptions about adult offenders.  This may be in direct conflict with evidence-based approaches to intervention for juveniles.  Even the best of laws are applied by investigators, attorneys, judges, probation and corrections officers, all of whom are susceptible to the same biases and errors as the rest of the human race.  


Kaylee’s Story, as told to RAINN.org

Another route to justice: Restorative Justice in Cases of Sexual Harm