Does forgiveness have a place when it comes to serving convicted criminals?

For that matter, do criminals deserve to be served in any way?

I ask because recently I rediscovered a subject I started to explore a year or so ago but put aside. It began as part of my inquiry into whether it’s possible to fight injustice with an open, loving heart. To me, this is one of the most intriguing questions facing those of us who want to make the world a more equitable place. I’m on the lookout for people who are working to oppose injustice without bitterness or anger—a truly difficult task—and I’ve found a few, though they’re rare. I write about this at length in my forthcoming book about selfless service.

             Sujatha Baliga

             Sujatha Baliga

During my research I stumbled across an article about Sujatha Baliga, a pioneer in what’s known as restorative justice. In this cutting edge approach to criminal justice, the victims of crimes are invited to help devise penalties for the people who harmed them. It’s a creative and often satisfying way to allow victims to achieve closure. The accused and the victims meet face-to-face, with prosecutors and defenders present, to discuss what happened before and during the crime. Each person describes his or her feelings about the crime, without interruption. The goal is to reach consensus on a fair penalty. After listening to their perpetrators, the victims may choose to impose more lenient sentences. Often the process enables them to move toward forgiveness.

Baliga grew up in Pennsylvania. She was sexually abused by her father from a young age. By the time she finished college, she had grown angry, very angry. She set her sights on becoming a prosecutor so she could put child molesters behind bars—a noble goal, or so everyone assured her. But as she nursed her anger and fed it with painful memories, she felt increasingly unsettled and unhappy.

Shortly before she was to start law school, she took a trip to India. While there she had an emotional breakdown. In hopes of finding peace, she traveled to Dharamsala, a city in the Himalayas that is home to a community of Tibetan refugees, including the Dalai Lama.  Baliga wrote a note to the Dalai Lama asking for advice. She told him her anger was killing her, but she depended on it to motivate her work. How could she help oppressed and abused people without anger as a motivating force?

This same question faces everyone who works for justice.

The Dalai Lama invited Baliga to a private audience. He told her she should meditate, and that she needed to open her heart to her father and to “try to align yourself with him.”

She couldn’t see how that would ever be possible, and she told him so.

The Dalai Lama patted her knee and said, “Okay, just meditate.”

After her return to the U.S., Baliga enrolled in an intensive ten-day meditation course. On her final day, she underwent a transformation: She completely released her anger and resentment toward her father, and her desire to avenge victims of sexual abuse.

She went to law school as planned but abandoned her goal to become a prosecutor. In Vermont she clerked for a federal judge—and encountered the concept of restorative justice.

I first read about Baliga in a gripping article in The New York Times Magazine. The article tells the story of a couple in Tallahassee, both 19 years old, who in 2010 became embroiled in a volatile argument that continued virtually nonstop for 38 hours. It ended when the young man shot his girlfriend in the face and killed her. He drove to the police station and turned himself in.

By then Baliga was beginning to make a name for herself in restorative justice. But she had never used the concept in a homicide case. The parents of both teens begged her to work with them.

Restorative justice was virtually unknown in Florida. It took some convincing for the prosecutor to accept the arrangement. The Times Magazine article describes the meeting, in which the killer was asked by the girl’s parents to describe exactly what happened and why he pulled the trigger.

It’s a wrenching account, and you can read it here.  Listening to his girlfriend's parents describe their feelings about her death affected the young man much more profoundly than anything a judge could have said. I won’t spoil the ending. But I will say that everyone went away feeling—not better, exactly, but more understanding. Scoured clean by the process.

 I suspect that readers who follow this blog already know how I would answer the questions posed above. Yes, criminals deserve forgiveness. And yes, we can and should find ways to serve them. They are every bit as human as you and me, and just as in need of compassion.

Baliga is now the director of the restorative justice program at Impact Justice, a research center in Oakland that focuses its work on reducing incarceration and improving prison conditions. Most of her efforts go toward helping communities find alternatives to juvenile detention and zero-tolerance school discipline policies.

Though in its infancy, the restorative justice concept shows a great deal of promise. With its potential to inject forgiveness and even love into the penal system, it could revolutionize the way we treat those who harm us. It could empower victims, who are largely banished to the sidelines in today’s criminal justice system. It could give us a way not just to vent our anger, but to closely examine it and put it to rest. And that is never, ever a bad thing.

AuthorJan DeBlieu