MLK Keynote Speaker Offers the Hope of Restorative Justice as An Alternative to Mass Incarceration

Baliga-SujathaRedemption and Reconciliation Were the Vision of Dr. King – When Bay Area resident Sujatha Baliga, a Senior Program Specialist at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, where she assists communities in implementing restorative justice alternatives to juvenile detention and zero-tolerance school discipline policies, was asked to come speak, there is little doubt that not many people would have known who she was.

But that was before the New York Times story from early this year, “Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?”  The story told the story of Conor McBride, who was was convicted of shooting his girlfriend of three years when they were both 19.

The restorative process, led by our speaker, Ms. Baliga, convened a plea conference in which all of the main stakeholders met to discuss the sentence to be faced by the murderer.

On Monday during MLK Day in Davis, Ms. Baliga followed a very sobering panel discussion on mass incarceration and “The New Jim Crow,” which we will cover in full tomorrow.  In her own way, she offered an answer and a way forward.

“What if Martin Luther King were here today with us?  What would he say if he bore witness to the Jim Crow that there were more African-Americans under correctional control today than there were enslaved in 1850?” she asked rhetorically.  “That racial disparities exist in every aspect of our juvenile and criminal justice system?  And that these disparities do begin in our school disciplinary processes that lead to school push out and our prison-school pipeline?”

Ms. Baliga told the audience, recalling Martin Luther King’s notion of “infinite hope,” that for her the notion of restorative justice brings her this infinite hope.

“I believe it really does have the potential to undo the New Jim Crow, by bringing people together under the most unlikely circumstances,” she said.  “To create what Dr. King called the beloved community.”

She told the crowd that after the Montgomery Boycott, Dr. King spoke these words, “The end is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community.”

“What I want to stress here is that Dr. King never said that there would be no harm done within this beloved community,” she said.  “Indeed without wrongdoing we’d have no need for reconciliation or redemption.  Rather he expected that these matters would be resolved through peaceful methods of conflict resolution – and even the opportunity for reconciliation in the wake of unthinkable harms.”

“Restorative justice, I think, offers that opportunity,” she said.

She said that restorative justice, as developed from the thinking of Howard Zehr, was a “process to involve to the extent possible all of those who have a stake in a specific offense and to address harms, needs and obligations and to put things as right as possible.”

She called it a “paradigm shift” or a “different way to think about justice.”  Today when there’s a crime, she said, we think in terms of “What law was broken?  Who broke it?  And how do we punish that person?”

“Restorative justice asks a very different set of questions,” she continued.  “It asks what harm was done, what needs have arisen, and whose obligation is it to meet those needs?”

She said that rather than state-centered, it focuses on the mending of human relations and begins with the victims being asked their needs and how we would go about healing that.

“It posits that crime is a violation of people and interpersonal relationships,” she said.  “Those violations create obligations.  And that central obligation is to do right by the people that you have harmed.”

“To quote Dr. King, it is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends,” Sujatha Baliga said.  She sees this transformation every time she facilitates a conference.

She told the audience that this process is actually a lot more natural than people might think.  She believes that is because we are wired to give forgiveness even to people who have done things to us that create harm.

This is something, she said, that Dr. King believed deeply and could be seen in his words, “All I’m saying is simply this, that all mankind is tied together.  All life is interrelated.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.  For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.  And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.  This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

She then referenced the story that the New York Times covered a couple of weeks ago, describing a restorative justice conference she facilitated in a first degree homicide case where a young man in Florida took the life of his fiancée.

The young woman’s family took the lessons of Dr. Martin Luther King “very literally to mean Conor redeeming himself.”

“They didn’t think that his taking their daughter’s life somehow severed him from humanity,” Ms. Baliga explained.  “They were willing to grapple with what that interconnectedness between them meant in the wake of this unthinkable harm.”

She described the dialogue that took five hours in Conor’s jail in Tallahassee, Florida.

“As we worked together to fashion Conor’s sentence,” she said, the mother of the victim “looked Conor in the eye and said these words, ‘Conor now you have the burden of doing the good works of two people because Ann (the victim) would have done wonderful things with her life.’ “

“When Kate (the mother) said this, she was living Dr. King’s definition of justice,” Ms. Baliga said.  “That justice is… ‘love correcting that which revolts against love.’ “

Conor would receive a twenty-year prison sentence.  That sentence was followed by a term of parole that included the things the family of the victim needed to see in order for Conor to redeem himself.

“This was in lieu of mandatory life,” Ms. Baliga said.  She said that the family was happy with this outcome, “although they would have preferred to see Conor do ten years – instead of twenty – that’s what they asked for.  His second ten years would have been that time where he was doing acts within the community.”

“One of the things that they asked for that was so astounding was that he would really educate himself about teen dating violence and speak on stages with them in high schools across the state of Florida about what he had done, what he had learned, and what lessons he had for teenagers in difficult relationships,” she said.

“Some people think this is crazy,” she continued.  “Meeting face to face with people who have done them wrong, even in murder cases.  I would suggest that our present system of justice is far crazier.”

“We are bankrupting ourselves both fiscally and morally with our current approach to crime,” she said.  “In the words of Dr. King, the question is not whether we will be extremists but what kind of extremists will we be.  Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice.”

“The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists,” she said.  “I encourage you to spend this day by being creative extremists.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

Related posts

30 Comments

  1. Mr Obvious

    We already use restorative justice principals, at least in California, instead of mass incarceration especially in misdemeanor court. Visit department nine of the Yolo County Court. See how many people are are sentenced to community service and restitution. Even felons are regularly sentenced to pay restitution. Good thing California is ahead of the curve on this one.

  2. David M. Greenwald

    You are misunderstanding what restorative justice as a process is. Restitution isn’t restorative justice because it’s a one-way imposition and it’s only a monetary compensation. That is not what restorative justice is about.

  3. David M. Greenwald

    Here’s a definition from wikipedia: “is an approach to justice that focuses on the needs of the victims and the offenders, as well as the involved community, instead of satisfying abstract legal principles or punishing the offender. Victims take an active role in the process, while offenders are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions, “to repair the harm they’ve done—by apologizing, returning stolen money, or community service”. Restorative justice involves both victim and offender and focuses on their personal needs. In addition, it provides help for the offender in order to avoid future offences.”

    How does this even remotely describe what you took restorative justice to be?

  4. David M. Greenwald

    If it works better, why does it matter who loves it? What we’re doing isn’t working, this is an approach that has been shown to produce better results. I’ll have a lot more on this in the coming weeks.

  5. SouthofDavis

    David wrote:

    > while offenders are encouraged to take
    > responsibility for their actions…

    Then rusty wrote:

    > Criminals will love restorative justice.

    Then Davis wrote:

    > If it works better, why does it matter who loves it?

    I wish that having a guy say “I’m sorry I killed your 6 year old when we did the drive by, I am truly sorry” would make things better, but it won’t and (as rusty says) “Criminals will love restorative justice”.

    If you don’t punish people you will have more crime. You can see this when you drive down Geneva Blvd. by the Cow Palace. All the drug dealers stand on the SF side of the street because they know that if they get arrested on the San Mateo County side of the street they will go to jail.

    It is not just the poor, we tend to have minimal punishment for rich bankers who typically get a $5 million dollar fine when they rip off customers for $50 million (think we would have more bank robbers if the worst that could happen when you stole $50K was that you had to pay a $5K fine with no jail time?)…

  6. Mr.Toad

    One thing she pointed out about New Zealand, the model for this approach, is that they don’t use it for manslaughter. You take away murder and most other criminals are getting out someday. Facing your victim and addressing how your crime hurt someone can help heal both the victim and the perp.

    What was amazing about this woman was the strength it takes to mediate such a process. If you think about it for one moment in put yourself in her shoes, sitting there in between these people, who are dealing with the consequences of a crime, she was quite impressive.

  7. David M. Greenwald

    “I wish that having a guy say “I’m sorry I killed your 6 year old when we did the drive by, I am truly sorry” would make things better, but it won’t “

    first, it’s far more than that.

    Second, I have a lengthy interview I did last year that I never published, where amazingly that’s what happened.

    And apparently, it worked with the family in Florida. So you’re demonstrably wrong. It’s not a process for everyone, but in some cases, it can work far better than the current system.

  8. rusty49

    Criminal:

    “You mean to tell me if I give the money back, apologize and do a little community service I won’t have to serve any jailtime? Hell Yeah!!

    What, and you’re going to ask me what my needs are to boot? Really?

    Well yes, I fully except going into the restorative justice process.”

  9. Ryan Kelly

    Community service sentences in Yolo County usually means reporting to the Yolo County Work Program and picking up trash, raking leaves, etc. It would be wonderful if community service really had people providing service to the community that matched their crimes and helped their victims, but we have no infrastructure to run a program like that.

  10. David M. Greenwald

    “How would restorative justice be realized in the Aurora and/or Newtown massacres? “

    It wouldn’t work in Newtown since the shooter is dead. So I’m not sure of your point. I think one point that needs to be made is that it won’t work in every situation. I’ll have some follow up articles that will lay that out a bit better.

  11. David M. Greenwald

    “If you don’t punish people you will have more crime. “

    It’s also not lack of punishing. But it’s punishing appropriately and then taking additional steps to redeem themselves.

  12. David M. Greenwald

    “You mean to tell me if I give the money back, apologize and do a little community service I won’t have to serve any jailtime? Hell Yeah!!

    What, and you’re going to ask me what my needs are to boot? Really?

    Well yes, I fully except going into the restorative justice process.”

    It actually would not work that way. It’s a process. I’m not an expert on this, but as I understand it, it’s a very intensive process. In the case that was described it was a five hour meeting where everything was laid to bare, there was accepting of responbility, and all stakeholders met and discussed what needed to happen and how to rectify.

    The interview I did last year, the process happened after the fact and it did not have anything to do with the sentencing. The guy was like 15 when he committed the crimes, he was in his thirties by the time he actually met with the mother of the woman he and his friend murdered.

    You’re criticizing something that is not only very complex, but because of its nature, I have only presented a very small window of it and you clearly do not understand the process – you need to educate yourself first before you dismiss it. Because I know enough to know that you really don’t unerstand it.

    I met with someone from Fresno two weeks ago and one of the things he told me is that there are a lot of conservatives who have moved toward the approach as well, it’s not a liberal or conservative thing.

  13. David M. Greenwald

    ” It would be wonderful if community service really had people providing service to the community that matched their crimes and helped their victims, but we have no infrastructure to run a program like that.”

    But Fresno does? This is happening more than people know.

  14. hpierce

    OK David… had the Newtown shooter had not taken his own life(is that restorative justice?) how would you respond to my question?. You don’t get my point about the Aurora shooting? My daughter and my wife have been in that theater… not that day… my daughter had co-workers who were… they were not hit that night… how would you feel about “restorative justice” if all you family had been there that night, and had been victims? Mr Holmes was a coward… he didn’t do the “restorative thing” that the Newtown assassin did.

  15. rusty49

    And how many go right back out and commit another crime after getting off easy by going through the restorative justice process? I’ll bet we never hear those numbers, and even if we did could we believe them?

  16. David M. Greenwald

    Again, I’m not an expert. First of all, I would say neither shooter would be a good candidate for this process because it would require they be of sound mind. Second, in neither case would the process, if it could go forward, mitigate punishment. Third, I think you would need the families to decide that they wanted to understand why the crimes were committed and create a process by which that could occur. In the case where I interviewed, she spent like a year of training preparing for their meeting, so this is not something that is done haphazardly. I think when I publish that story, your answer will be better answered than here.

  17. hpierce

    BTW, I concede that “restorative justice” can have a good place in society… for fraud, burglary, etc. But I also believe that certain crimes demand banishment from society.

  18. David M. Greenwald

    “And how many go right back out and commit another crime after getting off easy by going through the restorative justice process?”

    How many go right back out and commit another crime after serving their full sentence as it is? And why do you conflate this with getting off easy? In some cases, this will not even affect sentencing, it’s a way for victims to get closure and maybe even get some justice for their loved ones or themselves that they might not otherwise. Again, I think you don’t understand this and you are jumping to conclusions based on that lack of understanding and unfortunately, I’m no expert.

  19. David M. Greenwald

    ” But I also believe that certain crimes demand banishment from society.”

    Yes, you are correct. And restorative justice probably doesn’t change that.

  20. rusty49

    “How many go right back out and commit another crime after serving their full sentence as it is?”

    At least they were off the streets and society was a little safer while they were serving that sentence.

  21. Mr.Toad

    Its too bad more of you critics didn’t go to the presentation yesterday. In one case the woman presented the perp got 20 years and then had to spend the next 10 years going around to groups of young people with the victims parents to talk about his crime to try to prevent similar crimes. So yes he beat spending the rest of his life in jail but for the next 30 years he will pay for his crime.

  22. SouthofDavis

    David wrote:

    > there are a lot of conservatives who have moved
    > toward the approach as well, it’s not a liberal
    > or conservative thing.

    Many fiscal conservatives are upset that the “prison industrial complex” have bought and paid for nearly every elected official in Sacramento (last year I read that 98% of the members of the California Senate and Assembly have taken CCPOA Campaign Cash) and if the guards are going to get their buddies jobs making $100K plus a year (not counting the extra $100K a year of tax free cash the guards make getting paid by family members to smuggle in snacks, drugs and cell phones) they need more people in jail and are happy to lock up every kid that steals a bike, tags a building or sells a dime bag of pot.

    Libertarians and fiscal conservatives (unlike the drugs are evil lock everyone up Rush Limbaugh Republican conservatives) only want to lock up people that are dangerous or the law breakers that refuse to do alternative sentencing. I would much rather have had someone like Michael Milken teaching math to kids in South Sac rather than locked up in the east bay “country club” prison he spent years in and I would rather see a kid who is tagging buildings or breaking windows working with the city to clean the streets.

    Sadly I don’t think what I want will ever happen since the prison guards union want more people locked up and the teachers union does not want MBAs teaching kids for free and the city workers unions don’t want anyone cleaning the streets that is not paying union dues…

  23. Robb Davis

    I am sorry to be coming to this conversation so late in the day (perhaps this conversation has run its course) but I wanted to add a few thoughts:

    1. It is a bit unfortunate that the national attention focused on the murder case in which Ms Baliga mediated was most people’s introduction to restorative justice (RJ). RJ has rarely been used in such cases and because of the victim family’s commitments the idea of “forgiveness” has somehow begun to be used interchangeably with RJ. RJ does NOT seek forgiveness and does not even seek for reconciliation between victim and offender (though both can and do happen at times). It seeks to have wrongs done acknowledged and made right. Most RJ practice going on in the US (and around the world today) focuses on juvenile crime and school discipline.

    2. Restorative justice does not promise to reduce recidivism but it has been shown to do that especially in the case of juvenile crime. At a recent meeting in Fresno, District Judge Gottlieb presented evidence of reduction in re-offending in the County when RJ is used. RJ is used as the default approach to non-violent, non-sex juvenile crimes in Fresno County now. The Police Chief of Fresno City, the Sheriff of Fresno County and the Police Chief of Reedley in Fresno County all presented evidence of the value of RJ in juvenile crime during a panel discussion at the meeting. They all stressed that RJ is not “easy on crime” and they want to see it expanded to more serious crimes.

    3. RJ is not new–it is not an innovation–though its practice in California is relatively new. It has been central to the juvenile justice system in New Zealand for many years and has drastically reduced criminality and imprisonment of young people there. It is used widely in the UK as well.

    4. RJ is increasingly used in the context of school discipline and focuses on having students acknowledge their wrongdoing and the harm it causes. It is reducing expulsions and suspensions in schools that are using it. The Davis school system is beginning to use it with very good results (though it is just beginning). The entire Salinas School district is now using RJ principles and practices for discipline. The UC system is beginning to use it for student rules breaking and more and more universities across the US are using it in this way.

    5. RJ is valued by victims groups because it gives them an opportunity (should they choose) to face those who offended them, to ask questions of them, to explain the harm done to them because of the offenders actions and to participate in defining the restitution necessary.

    6. In contrast to the retributive justice system that we currently have, in which the accused are encouraged to admit no wrongdoing, in RJ the accused is incentivized to acknowledge wrongdoing and make it right.

    We have much to learn about RJ and I could add more here but will stop. I have multiple copies of an introductory, brief text on RJ that I am happy to give, free of charge, to anyone who contacts me. I have 4 copies at home right now and can order more if need be. The book is written by RJ pioneer Howard Zehr (whom Ms Baliga mentioned in her speech yesterday). Please contact me at robbbike@me.com if you would like a copy.

  24. Mr Obvious

    [quote]You are misunderstanding what restorative justice as a process is. Restitution isn’t restorative justice because it’s a one-way imposition and it’s only a monetary compensation. That is not what restorative justice is about.[/quote]

    Incorrect. I know exactly what it is. Defendants have an opportunity to speak during sentencing and accept responsibility for and apologize for their actions. Your initial comment has been edited but it included a statement about giving back victims their property. That is already in the system we have. Stolen items will be retained as evidence and given back to victims after trial.

    I’m not saying RJ is a bad thing, I actually like the idea in certain circumstances. I’m just pointing out that its principals are already in use or available.

    I question the potential success of RJ because such a large percentage of people who victimize others are sociopaths. They wont get or care about the process.

  25. jimt

    Re: David’s comment: “It’s also not lack of punishing. But it’s punishing appropriately and then taking additional steps to redeem themselves.”

    I agree with this statement; and it seems tragic that with the way prisons are run and operated; it would appear that redemption is difficult to attain, even for those who seek it. How is it that we run a prison system where there is so much prisoner-on-prisoner abuse–beatings, rapes, and threats of violence–as I understand it many inmates face a choice of either not joining a gang; and running the constant risk of violent abuse to themselves; or joining a gang and being forced to participate in violent abuse of other inmates. Hardly conducive to redemption, instead the lowest-common-denominator brutal behavior wins out. Why are prisoners given the freedom or opportunity to do this? Is it possible to run or operate a prison in such a way that there is little opportunity for prisoner-on-prisoner abuse? What about a combination of more segregation of prisoners (one gang or rival group from another) and more work requirement–and how about paying them, for work done; both with reduced time and minimum wage; with most of wages only available after they are released from prison; so that when they are released they will have some money; perhaps an appreciable amount, that can help them get started to a more honest life where they work like the rest of us schmucks?

  26. Frankly

    I am very late to this conversation. I enjoyed reading the article and posts.

    I’ve been trying to figure out what bothers me about the RJ approach. I am one of those fiscal conservatives that would support anything that might reduce the cost of our prison system… but not at the expense of increasing crime. I am more apt to support it for juvenile crime and non-violent crime.

    However, I think my dislike is related to my general distrust of public administration. If we adopt a larger policy for this, we will introduce a bunch of marginal performers working on it. We will allow the soft-on-crime advocates to sneak in and become part of this new progressive approach. In the end we would screw it up. We would have serious crimes committed by criminals that would otherwise be locked up.

    In my view crime and punishment needs to be simple and straightforward so we don’t screw it up. Do the crime, then do the time.

  27. medwoman

    [quote]However, I think my dislike is related to my general distrust of public administration. If we adopt a larger policy for this, we will introduce a bunch of marginal performers working on it. We will allow the soft-on-crime advocates to sneak in and become part of this new progressive approach. In the end we would screw it up. We would have serious crimes committed by criminals that would otherwise be locked up.

    In my view crime and punishment needs to be simple and straightforward so we don’t screw it up. Do the crime, then do the time.[/quote]

    My question to you Jeff would be: “Have you done the research to know whether or not this is a process that is useful as a protective measure for society ?” I am always skeptical of any statement that begins “related to my general distrust”. What this says to me is that you have already decided that if concept or process does not fit exactly into your preconceived notions, then you are not open to considering it. What I would propose instead, if you have not already, is to look into this process with an open mind and a view to whether or not it might have value in schools, youth, and nonviolent settings before panning it outright.

  28. Robb Davis

    Jeff – You wrote:

    “We will allow the soft-on-crime advocates to sneak in and become part of this new progressive approach. In the end we would screw it up. We would have serious crimes committed by criminals that would otherwise be locked up.”

    This seems to ignore the reality that there are many people who have been for many years and are now advocating for the expansion of prisons to lock people up. In these pages we have seen evidence of the power of prison guards in this state and the builders of prisons are highly influential. I have a good friend who works for a large company that builds prisons. He is proud of the access he has to highest levels of government both nationally and in a number of states in which his company works. These groups are highly effective advocates that have helped develop the largest prison system in the world. I would argue that this, and the failed war on drugs, have led to the lock up of many people who should not be. Does that make me soft on crime? It would seem that fiscal conservatives would want to challenge the cost of this process to our society.

    I must strongly object to the characterization that RJ advocates are soft on crime. I would argue that those of us involved in it are taking the time to better understand what law breaking is really about. Many crimes have direct victims and our current system treats victims as bit players in a process whereby the state takes on the role of the “victim” and the true victim is rarely heard from. RJ places victims in the middle of the process. Indeed, one reason RJ is growing is because victims want it. It is also important to note that when RJ is used judges still maintain all the power to determine with restitution agreements meet the standard of what the law demands. Those involved in RJ care deeply about the damage done by crime to communities and they are not in it to help get criminals off easy. They, more than the current system, are concerned about having those who commit crime take responsibility for their actions.

    I guess you have not read my post above (I know it was too long and too late) but your comment that this is a “new progressive approach” is inaccurate. RJ is a very old process and I would argue that is fully consistent with conservative values of caring for local communities and their health.

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
$ USD
Sign up for