Forgiveness and the State

There are so many shootings in major urban areas these days that most have ceased to garner any public attention. An exception occurred last year when an 11 year-old boy taking a piano lesson on a school-day afternoon was shot and paralyzed by a stray bullet from a gas station hold-up attempt across the street—an accident so arbitrary and a victim so clearly innocent that it captured the hearts and attention of the entire Bay Area community. The trial for that crime has just ended here in Oakland, the gunman sentenced to 70 years to life in prison, with the young victim, Christopher Rodriguez, telling him “I forgive you.”

At the Independent Institute’s Gala for Liberty last fall, attendees were entranced listening to Archbishop Desmond Tutu describe South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s trials for the horrific violence conducted under apartheid. At the trials, perpetrators were given the opportunity to stand before their victims (or their survivors) to confess their crimes and ask for forgiveness. As the Archbishop explained, though criticized by some for letting criminals off without “punishment,” the commission in fact delivered “restorative justice:”

The commission chose to grant amnesty in exchange for the whole truth: a complete disclosure of all the relevant facts relating to the offense for which amnesty was being sought. A confessing perpetrator bore the stigma of public shame and humiliation regarding his crime, which frequently included very real family and career consequences.

The commission also created a means by which rehabilitation and re-acceptance into the community was possible, providing healing and reconciliation for victims and perpetrators alike.

Contrast this with the usual criminal justice system: in most criminal cases it is “The State vs. [Perpetrator],” as if the crime has been committed against “The State” rather then the individual(s) actually harmed. Indeed, the victim is rarely any part of the trial at all. The criminal owes a debt to “society;” the victim receives no restitution for his/her loss. Though in the case cited above the perpetrator has been ordered to pay the victim and his family $130,000 that he presumably does not have—else why was he attempting to rob a gas station—what State penitentiary system is set up for prisoners to be other than a continual, huge financial drain on their tax-paying victims?

For alternative approaches to justice, see the Independent Institute’s book, To Serve and Protect (summary here), providing practical examples such as:

For instance, prior to prosecution, most Japanese criminals bargain with their victim through a mediator, and offer to pay restitution so that the victim will not demand further punishment. Few offenders receive government imposed penalties on top of their restitution.

Such a system places the victim squarely at the center of the justice system, where s/he belongs, and additionally provides restorative healing to the victim, re-empowered through the process, whether the victim chooses forgiveness, restitution, punishment, or a combination.

In the case of young Christopher Rodriguez, his forgiving is clearly an important part of his establishing a hopeful future for himself despite his injuries, and it may in the process provide healing to the casebook “predator” who shot him. Once again, “out of the mouth of babes” comes a timeless lesson.

You can watch the video of Archbishop Tutu’s Gala address here.

For his related op-ed, “Desmond Tutu’s Advice for the Next U.S. President,” see here.

Mary L. G. Theroux is Senior Vice President of the Independent Institute.
Posts by Mary L. G. Theroux | Full Biography and Publications
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