How do countries move beyond unspeakable atrocities? After World War II, the Nuremberg trials dealt with some of the Nazi criminals, allowing for a modicum of closure. In more recent times, countries plagued by civil wars have tended to adopt the South African model of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created after the end of apartheid, in which perpetrators and victims come face to face; the former accept their responsibilities and the latter have an opportunity to voice their stories. Think of Rwanda and, to a certain extent, Bosnia.
Forgiveness is not always possible but it’s at the core of this process, devised so that former enemies but still citizens of the same country can move on and live side by side.
Forgiveness is a tricky business and often elusive even in our most quotidian interactions. How many grudges does each and one of us carry? Most belief systems, religious or otherwise, counsel forgiveness as the only course of action that frees us and permits us to walk through life emotionally unencumbered. Like many moral tenets we all agree to in principle, it’s sometimes difficult to put into practice.
And if forgiveness is hard to come by even in the most elemental relationships, often it has no place within the confines of the judicial system. Enter Ms. Sujatha Baliga, an extraordinary woman whose personal and career paths brought her to find a way to apply, if not always forgiveness, what is called “restorative justice” to a system that is often too black and white in the way it looks at crime.
Ms. Baliga, now Director of Restorative Justice Project and Senior Program Specialist at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, started her legal career as a public defender in New York and New Mexico (she holds degrees from Harvard + Radcliffe and from the University of Pennsylvania Law School).
A victim of abuse at the hands of her own father, Ms. Baliga’s turning point might have been her own desire to move past the hurt and the anger she was carrying. While taking some time off to figure out how to move forward in her career, during a hiking trip in the Himalayas, Ms. Baliga came in contact with members of the beleaguered Tibetan community whose experiences, abuses and constant oppression made her plight – without belittling it – pale in comparison. After sharing some of her struggle with forgiveness in her own life, and within her profession, some Tibetans urged her to write to the Dalai Lama, an act that led to a private audience in which His Holiness reaffirmed to Ms. Baliga the importance of forgiveness.
“Becoming a prosecutor really wasn’t an option anymore and a piece of what his Holiness told me was to consider in some way aligning myself in my heart with my enemies. So even though I was on the brink of starting law school to be a prosecutor I ended up becoming a criminal defense attorney instead”* Ms Baliga said.
Fast forward a few years and some help later, and Ms. Baliga, who was able to let go of her personal anger, also managed to put into tangible practice what she believes. Aimed mainly at youth arrested for a variety of crimes, Ms. Baliga’s organization works with both prosecutors and defense attorneys: the victims (and sometimes their families) and the perpetrators come together in sessions she mediates. Each has an opportunity to tell their stories, to accept responsibility, to recount how the crime has affected them, and a form of restitution (which can be monetary in crimes where loss of property is involved and can also mean jail sentences) is agreed upon in lieu of a conventional trial/sentencing.
Again in Ms Baliga’s words: “Restorative justice is a real paradigm shift in the way that we think about wrongdoing. It requires a shift away from punishment towards repair. A good way to think of it is what’s often called the three questions. What we generally ask is: what law was broken, who broke it, and how do we punish them. And in restorative justice we ask a very different set of questions. We ask: what harm was done and to whom, what needs have arisen based on that harm, and whose obligation is it to meet those needs. It brings all the multiple stakeholders together to engage in a reparative process, ideally through consensus-based decision-making. […]
I can’t think of a better scenario for growing forgiveness or cultivating forgiveness than restorative processes but I don’t see restorative processes as being designed to produce forgiveness because victims will do what they need to do. And we need to honor wherever victims are in their journey and it may or may not involve forgiveness.” **
I was struck by how this young woman not only went through her own difficult personal journey and was able to find a compass but, mostly, by how she was able to translate something deeply personal into a job that affects young offenders who could have ended up hardened criminals in the hands of a conventional justice system.
** source from Berkeley Law – where you can read the entire interview or listen to the podcast