Will R. Kelly’s conviction lead to true justice for his victims?

OPINION: Writer Sil Lai Abrams explores if a hybrid approach of restorative justice and confinement could be the better answer in seeking justice in Kelly's sexual abuse case

After over 20 years of reporting, an illegal marriage to 15-year-old Aaliyah, widely disseminated video evidence of his creation of child pornography and rape commonly referred to as “The R. Kelly Sex Tape,” failed prosecution for said assault and video due to witness tampering, years of social media organizing led by the #MuteRKelly group, and a two-part docuseries featuring graphic testimonies from his many accusers, on Sept. 27, 2021, Robert Sylvester Kelly was finally convicted of eight counts of sex trafficking and one count of racketeering in New York. Jo

Still pending is a trial for obstruction of justice and creation and dissemination of child pornography in Chicago and sexual abuse charges in Illinois and Minnesota. 

Reactions to R. Kelly’s conviction on social media have primarily expressed relief that a serial sexual predator was finally being held legally accountable for his actions. 

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Not all people were happy about his prosecution, as evidenced by supporters voicing their frustration on social media, and others who held daily vigils outside the Brooklyn courthouse where the trial took place, proclaiming Kelly’s innocence to passersby. Less than a day after his conviction, public figures such as Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Illinois U.S. Congressman Danny Davis had already began to lay the groundwork for Kelly’s redemption arc, positioning him as a troubled man, who at the age of 54, deserves the opportunity to redeem himself and become an asset to a society he has terrorized for decades. 

“As an artist, one who’s gifted … I think he’ll be welcomed back into Chicago as a person who can be redeemed,” said Davis hours after the verdict announcement. The timing of his response was a transparent attempt to promote his legislation and express sympathy for a serial sexual offender while sidelining the experiences of the people Kelly has harmed.

It is worth noting that he submitted the Second Chance Act of 2007, a bill “designed to assist an incarcerated person’s reentry to society through support programs aimed at reducing recidivism. (The National Institute of Justice has researched the efficacy of the programs supported by Act funding and found no evidence that it reduces recidivism). 

Chuck D is a hip-hop legend with a penchant for expressing ‘whataboutisms’ on social media, particularly when it pertains to issues around gender. 

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Both men focused on how the criminal legal system fails those convicted of crimes and questioned how and when Kelly could return to a community he unquestionably manipulated, brutalized, exploited, terrorized, and intimidated. There was no mention of the impact of the harm he has inflicted, only reflections on prison’s effect on him and his right to turn his life around while locked up. Kelly’s many victims were erased and pushed aside to advocate for the needs of a convicted serial child rapist. While they are the most high-profile proponents for his rehabilitation, they are certainly not the only people engaging in this mental exercise.

For far too long sexual crimes committed against Black women, girls, and boys have been ignored or dismissed by a society enculturated into anti-Blackness and racist ideologies about our sexuality and right to bodily autonomy. In a world where it is rare for any sexual assailant to be held accountable through the criminal legal system, Kelly’s conviction is a massive win for survivors. At the same time, sending a Black person into the prison industrial complex can incur mixed feelings by prison abolitionists and restorative justice (RJ) advocates and proponents.

In an era where discussions on the inhumanity of incarceration and rampant violations of human rights for those confined are steadily gaining traction, some question if Kelly’s conviction and incarceration is true justice. For prison abolitionists, the answer would be a resounding no: under no circumstances should prisons exist, or anyone be confined.

R. Kelly Returns To Court For Hearing On Sex Abuse Allegations
R. Kelly appears at a hearing before Judge Lawrence Flood at Leighton Criminal Court Building May 7, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by E. Jason Wambsgans-Pool/Getty Images)

Inarguably, the harm of the carceral regime far outweighs any benefits. Black people are overrepresented in prisons and jails, and their sentences are not proportional to the damage caused. Prisons are not a panacea for the ills of society. They provide a false sense of safety to the public, do nothing to deter crime, destroy lives and families while bolstering the State’s power over communities of color. 

For many within the restorative justice space, most I have spoken with believe almost all persons currently incarcerated should be released. They shared that the only people who should remain confined are those whose crimes and psychological composition render them a continuous threat to public safety. They are also explicit that confinement, as it exists, must be changed from its current inhumane version. Given the severity and scope of his crimes, along with his continued assertions of innocence, I agree that R. Kelly’s incarceration protects society.

For those such as Chuck D and Congressman Davis, the question isn’t when and why Kelly deserves a second chance, but whether or not he qualifies for a second chance. 

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Chuck D invoked Kelly’s history of sexual abuse to garner sympathy for the disgraced artist. While that may explain why he is predisposed to sexually assaulting girls and boys, it does not make him less responsible for his actions. Blaming his behavior on adverse childhood experiences pathologizes child sex abuse survivors and pushes a false narrative about survivors. The vast majority of persons who have suffered childhood sexual abuse do not become sexual predators. To cite his experience as a justification for his actions is an attempt to shift blame and center Kelly’s pain over the dozens of children he has harmed. 

It is a myth that every survivor wants to see their assailant go to prison and that incarceration addresses the issue of systemic sexual abuse. Justice for survivors must be centered around the needs of those harmed, and criminal trial cooperation does precisely the opposite. It reduces them to mere witnesses for the State’s prosecution of a person who broke the law. Dismal conviction rates and secondary trauma resulting from a trial, along with disbelief, impact to one’s profession and social standing, combined with public shaming, make criminal prosecution a dangerous proposition for survivors. 

Researchers have found that restorative justice helps address survivors’ need to ensure their perpetrator does not harm others. Restorative justice addressing sexual assault has higher satisfaction rates in other countries, such as New Zealand and Australian youth programs. Research also suggests that people who participated in restorative practices while incarcerated and post-release are less likely to re-offend. In the United States, restorative justice is not used for felony sexual assault. Our criminal legal system does not provide any form of material support to aid the return of sex offenders to their communities. 

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Convictions do not necessarily equal resolution and healing for survivors. Many continue to struggle and find themselves grief-stricken despite seeing their assailant locked up. Restorative justice offers crime victims the chance to confront their assailants and potentially receive redress. If any R. Kelly survivor desires to engage in a restorative process, such as conferencing, while serving time, could this give them the resolution they want? Is R. Kelly the type of offender who would qualify for a restorative justice program addressing adult sexual offenders if it existed in the U.S.? In the case of R. Kelly, could a hybrid approach of restorative justice and confinement be the better answer? 

As a restorative justice advocate, my answer is a resounding no. The conditions for participation in a restorative justice process require that a person accept responsibility for the harm they have caused. R. Kelly has repeatedly demonstrated through his actions that he is unrepentant and voiced that he is the victim of a racist legal system and disgruntled fans. Any apologies or admissions of guilt proferred would be an attempt to groom a survivor to become his advocate at a retrial. An ethical RJ practitioner would never agree to do it at this time. Kelly has explicitly indicated he is not ready. Perhaps his views may change over time while incarcerated, but this seems unlikely given that people are too focused on survival in prison, limiting their ability to reflect upon their actions seriously.

For a man like R. Kelly, who still has many supporters, his proclamations of railroading and innocence will continue to be reinforced, even in prison. One only needs to look at Bill Cosby to see this phenomenon in effect.

R. Kelly theGrio.com
R. Kelly performs onstage during R. Kelly, New Edition and The Jacksons at the 2013 BET Experience at Staples Center. (Photo by Earl Gibson III/Getty Images for BET)

Restorative justice is driven by those harmed, and their needs are central to an RJ process. Proponents of restorative justice in cases of sexual violence are careful to emphasize that it is not an appropriate venue for everyone. Despite victims’ reports of generally having negative experiences with the criminal legal system, some are disinterested in the RJ model because of cultural constraints such as honor/shame-based societies or an unwillingness to come in contact with their assailant.

Conversations need to focus on assisting his survivors in their healing, not the probability of Kelly’s redemption. We must confront and dismantle the systems that enabled him to operate with impunity for decades so that the other R. Kelly’s of the world are stopped. Not just men of wealth and privilege, but the priest, the cousin, the grandfather, the babysitter. Restorative justice may be an avenue for those of his survivors who desire it, but only time will tell if he ever accepts responsibility for the harm he has caused. Even then, serial predators like Kelly must be kept separate from society due to their high risk of offending. Indefinitely. 

Sil Lai Abrams, theGrio.com

Sil Lai Abrams is an NABJ award-winning writer, gender violence activist, and advocate. You can follow her on Twitter at @Sil_Lai.

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