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Radical Compassion: Restorative Justice Program Meets Needs of Both Victims and Perpetrators

A new program allows victims' forgiveness to play a role in prosecution.

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A storm of comments swirled around a story about teen murder in the New York Times last weekend. The parents of a young woman named Ann forgave her boyfriend, Conor, for murdering her. Andy and Kate Grosmaire had loved Conor before he killed Ann, their youngest daughter. But they said they did not so much forgive him for his sake as for their own, to free themselves from being imprisoned in hate and anger, and to follow the teachings of Christ (they are committed Catholics). 

What shocked many readers, though, was that they sought a " restorative justice ” process, in which Conor, the two sets of parents and other involved individuals met in a circle with the prosecutor and bared their souls to one another – and thereby succeeded in persuading the prosecutor to give Conor a lower sentence than he would otherwise have received.

Conor is white, some readers commented, believing that could never have happened to a person of color. It’s unfair and arbitrary, others said: no one’s sentence should be determined by how forgiving or angry their victims’ families are. Forgiveness is a private spiritual matter. Sentencing should to be unemotional and consistent.

I went to visit Sujatha Baliga, the restorative justice facilitator in the case, in her office at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in Oakland, California. Baliga has a vibrant presence and is quick to laugh (and to cry, when some bad news arrived during our interview about a former client). While she speaks colorfully off the record, she skillfully couches what can sound like radical ideas in the language of public policy and the law. (Sujatha Baliga wrote her own description of the McBride-Grosmaire case a year ago in the restorative justice issue of Tikkun magazine. The two families spoke about the case on  The Today Show and Baliga was on  NPR's Talk of the Nation.)

David Belden:Does restorative justice promote forgiveness over public safety?

Sujatha Baliga: Restorative justice never requires forgiveness as a prerequisite for participation or as an outcome. We don’t want to put pressure on victims to forgive. But I can’t think of a better cauldron for cooking up some forgiveness than a restorative process, because it makes an opportunity for some of the things that people need for a feeling of forgiveness, a letting go of anger. 

It was a beautiful thing to see how forgiveness impacted the Grosmaires and Conor in this case, and I'm so glad I had the sacred opportunity to witness it first-hand. However, even without forgiveness this would have been a doable case – the Grosmaires had no interest in a trial, had questions only Conor could answer, and wanted a say in what happened. A restorative process could have met those needs with or without forgiveness. 

In my experience a quarter of restorative processes result in forgiveness, a quarter are entirely transactional, and 50 percent are somewhere in the middle. 

What is forgiveness? For some people it is a spiritual or religious thing, for others it’s simply a complete relinquishment of anger and a right to retribution and revenge. That relinquishment may or may not occur at the end of a restorative process. 

As to public safety, there is no reason to think of that as being at odds with forgiveness. As Andy Grosmaire  said on the Today Show , forgiveness is not a pardon. In fact, the kind of accountability that flows from a restorative process serves public safety better than what we are currently doing today.

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