Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?

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I just finished rereading the article, "Can Forgiveness Pay a Role in Criminal Justice" published by the New York Times on January 4, 2013, and am truly amazed and impressed how two families were able to deal with a violent crime through forgiveness and the use of restorative justice principles at a very trying emotional time as well as in a very difficult legal environment.  The victim's parents' desire to forgive the offender, their daughter's boyfriend, led to this restorative use of the pre-plea conference, the only avenue open to restorative conferencing.  In restorative justice, the victims, offender, affected family and community members as well as representatives of the legal and criminal justice community, meet and talk about the impact of the crime on their lives.  Restorative justice practices can at times be used as an alternative to the normal criminal justice process.  This process is often offered as an alternative in non-violent crimes.  At other times, usually many years after the crime has been committed, victims and offenders meet with a mediator present to talk about the continued impact of the crime on their lives.  Although forgiveness is desirable, it occurs in about one third of such conferences held.  If forgiveness does not occur the conference can still be successful as long as the victims hear from the offender what actually happened during the (violent) crime. 

 
The desire to forgive so soon after the young woman was killed makes this so unique.  Only one other instance has recently been reported similar to this one and that was the shooting of ten students at the West Nickel Mines school, a school in an Amish community in Lancaster County, PA.  Soon after the shooting, which resulted in five children being killed, the parents publicly forgave the offender, who had committed suicide at the time of the shooting.
 
The less than ideal process used as part of the pre-plea conference was held and the mediator skillfully allowed all parties to share including giving the offender the opportunity to tell in his own words what happened.  At the end, the family recommended a five to fifteen year sentence for the offender.  The Assistant state attorney did his own research and instead offered a plea of twenty years in prison with ten additional years of probation which was accepted.  To offer a plea in Florida of twenty years in prison was (and is) an offer filled with risk for the prosecutor.
 
Now a twenty year sentence may not appear to be a long time for having committed first degree murder.  However, I believe from personal experience that twenty years in prison is indeed a very long time.  I served as a prison chaplain with the Federal Bureau of Prisons for twenty five years.  I experienced first-hand the consequences of the "war on drugs" and "getting tough on crime" where offenders were sentenced to longer and longer sentences.  It is a sad commentary on society that the prosecutor believed he could not accept a sentence of five to fifteen years because of the public's perceived outrage of being considered "soft" on crime.  It seems that the circumstances which came to light during the restorative conferencing would have been sufficient to determine an appropriate sentence.  In this instance, under these circumstances, the recommended sentence of five to fifteen years would have been very appropriate.
 
John Lamsma is the Restorative Justice Project Manager for the Office of Social Justice. For more information on the CRC's work in Restorative Justice, visit the Office of Social Justice.
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