What is the Proper Role of Forgiveness in Restorative Justice?

Is forgiveness an appropriate goal of restorative justice? What is the proper role of forgiveness in restorative justice?

The media has given restorative justice increased attention since the New York Times published the article, “Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?” in early January.

But some criticize the article and ensuing media attention as doing “a disservice…by dwelling on forgiveness as the apparent reason for restorative justice.” Ted Wachtel, President and Founder of the International Institute for Restorative Practices Graduate School, wrote on the Huffington Post, “Forgiveness is neither an expectation nor a goal of restorative justice. Forgiveness may be a by-product, but the notion that a crime victim should forgive an offender imposes unrealistic and potentially hurtful demands on a crime victim.”

The article goes on to list the many benefits of restorative justice that typical court systems cannot provide: the opportunity to express feelings directly to an offender, ask questions such as “why me?”, get an apology, and determine restitution; reduced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder; decreased rates of re-offending; and lower costs. With all these recognized benefits of restorative justice, Wachtel asserts we should not focus on the “not-always attainable and sometimes detrimental expectation of forgiveness,” but rather on the many ways the restorative justice does help victims of crime that are not “predicated on the victim forgiving the offender.”

In a comment to Wachtel’s article, Sujatha Baliga, the restorative justice practitioner and attorney featured in the New York Times article, responded to the question of forgiveness’ role in restorative justice:

“My unequivocal answer is that forgiveness is not necessary for participation in restorative processes, nor should it be expected as an outcome. Forgiveness happened to exist in the Grosmaire/McBride case — and actually predated the restorative community conference. I believe forgiveness reigned so large in the Times piece because it was bedrock of this journey for the Grosmaires, the McBrides, and for Conor. To that end, the reporter did an excellent job of telling the stories of the people involved in this case. What we learn from this is that the story-by-story coverage always paints a partial picture of the field. My hope is for future media coverage of a story that doesn’t focus on forgiveness — for example, where the interaction was more transactional yet still produced the many other positive outcomes Ted summarizes in his article. In short, we mustn’t set the bar at forgiveness. I’ve facilitated many conferences where there was no forgiveness, yet everyone was satisfied with the process and moved forward in a positive way. Moreover, forgiveness is not a viable policy alternative to criminal adjudication/incarceration, but restorative justice is.” She further discussed her perspective on the topic here in a webinar with Howard Zehr.

What do you think? Please leave a comment and let us know your thoughts.

Ted Wachtel’s full blog post is available here. The original New York Times article is available here.



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