Forgiving and justice: part 2

A woman named Susan is sexually assaulted by a man she does not know. Susan calls the police, who take her to the hospital and begin investigating the crime. At the hospital, DNA samples are taken and Susan is treated for her injuries. The police complete their investigation but are unable to make any arrest because they can identify no suspect.

Months pass and Susan receives counseling from professionals and moral support from many friends. As part of her effort to recover and move on in life, she believes that she needs to forgive the assailant. So she makes a decision to forgive him.

Some months later, police arrest a man on a rape charge. When his DNA is tested, it is a match for the man who raped Susan. The police contact Susan and ask her to come in to the station, where she is told of the arrest and asked to view a lineup of suspects. Susan immediately identifies her rapist. Police inform her of the DNA match.

A few days later, a prosecutor calls Susan to say that he is building his case against the rapist and wants Susan to testify against him in court. The prosecutor says, “I am sure you want justice to be served.”

But Susan has already forgiven the man who raped her. Should she now testify so that justice may be served on the man she has forgiven? Why or why not?

I continued today at the penitentiary with the lesson on forgiveness and justice. Dividing the 14 men present into three groups, I handed each a piece of paper containing Susan’s story. They spent about 20 minutes discussing it. One of the groups reached a unanimous answer: Susan should not testify. A similar conclusion was reached by large majorities in the two other groups.

One man, speaking for the majority, protested that Susan needed to protect herself from the inevitable flood of bad memories that would engulf her on the witness stand. She could do this, he said, by refusing to testify. Another who voted with the majority said that if Susan testified against the man it would be like reneging on her forgiveness of him. Supportively, another said that since Susan had decided to move on by forgiving, she should not look back.

I stood with the minority who felt Susan should testify and allow the justice system to do its work. Susan, I said, could still maintain her forgiveness of the rapist while also desiring that he receive a fair penalty for his crime, if convicted by a jury of his peers. Forgiving addresses the anger and bitterness that eventually poisons the mind and heart of the person who has been hurt. Forgiving does not say that what happened is ok or that the person who perpetrated the injury or harm should not be called to account for his actions.

Searching for common ground, I asked how many class members thought that sexual assault was ok. No hands were raised. “So,” I asked, “don’t we need to say in as clear a way as possible that sexual assault is not ok, and that men who are guilty of rape should receive a fair prison sentence?” No one disagree.

However, I am not sure everyone is convinced. In his book, Inside the Criminal Mind, Stanton Samenow writes, “Criminals know right from wrong. In fact, some know the laws better than their lawyers do. But they believe that whatever they want to do at any given time is right for them.”

Can these classes on forgiving help to change such faulty thinking? That is my prayer.

Forgiveness and justice

“Forgiving does not require us to give up on justice.” I made this statement in the second class on forgiving I am currently teaching at the penitentiary. It’s an assertion that is more controversial than one might imagine.

The controversy, however, exists largely on just one side of the prison door — the inside. For those of us who have never been prosecuted for a crime and spent time in jail, it seems only self-evident that one can forgive and still expect that justice be served. This is especially true of crime victims. Forgiving addresses my hurt, my anger, my bitterness. Forgiving is letting go so that I can get out of the prison created by my response to the pain someone else has visited on me.

But justice is something else. Justice is moral accounting. It is an effort by the community to right a wrong. For example, it is wrong to assault and rob someone not because it brings pain and loss to the victim, but because it offends a larger standard established by custom and law. The victim can forgive the offender but still believe that a price needs to be paid. In our system of retributive justice, the price will almost always be a prison sentence — the community’s way of affirming that assault and robbery are unacceptable.

Even using a restorative justice approach, the offender would have an obligation to work toward making the victim whole. He would have to acknowledge the wrongness of what he has done and make restitution. A prison sentence might also be appropriate, but not as the only means of restoring balance to the scales.

All of this makes perfect sense outside prison walls.

But on the inside this is not as obvious. In my classes, some inmates vigorously contest the idea that justice still needs to be served if the victim has forgiven the offender. “Forgiveness ought to end it,” said one inmate. Another added, “If the victim still wants justice, then it is obvious that he has not forgiven the offender.”

I view these assertions in the context of what is obvious to the majority of inmates: the criminal justice system is deeply flawed, even corrupt. Many see themselves as victims of racial profiling, a misguided “War on Drugs,” overzealous prosecutors and draconian sentences. Serving time in a federal penitentiary is dreadful for whatever reason. No small number of inmates with whom I work know that they will never get another chance at freedom. It is not hard to understand why they believe that forgiving and seeking justice are opposing ethics. Choose one or the other; you can’t have both.

Next week I will wade deeper into this controversial topic, knowing that our criminal justice system is built on retribution (which inmates see as state-sanctioned revenge) and not restoration. I will try hard to maintain the importance of forgiving and justice to an audience that is already skeptical of both.


Injustice, offenders, and victims

One of the things nearly every prison inmate I have talked to knows is that they are, to some degree or another, the victims of injustice. Some will add that the system that put them in prison is also corrupt.

In a small group discusssion within the past year, one inmate announced that he was in prison for a crime he did not commit. He noted, however, that he had neither been arrested nor prosecuted for several crimes he did in fact commit. But he was passionate about the injustice of his present incarceration.

Sentiments such as these, even among inmates who are deeply religious, are common. Invariably, too, they are men of color. This is not surprising considering that the population within the Bureau of Prisons is disproportionately African-American.

Inmates routinely dispute the justice of their sentences. One inmate, serving a life sentence, vowed that he was convicted and sentenced for possessing more illegal drugs than he actually had when he was arrested. Another said the prosecutors somehow rolled an earlier drug conviction into his second conviction, thus boosting the amount of drugs to the level where he received a life sentence for the second offense. Asked if the system is corrupt, the answer is invariably yes.

No inmate with whom I have discussed these things has ever asserted that he was not, in fact, a drug dealer. All admit to it. What they object to is the manner of the prosecution and the resulting prison sentence.

On the latter point I have a hard time disagreeing. The prison sentences being routinely given for drug offenses in the United States are, at times, breathtakingly draconian. I have spoken to more than one federal prosecutor who believes this area is long overdue for serious reconsideration and reform.

But I am also troubled by inmates who seem oblivious to the real damage their drug dealing crimes did to those who purchased the substances they sold. People who become addicted to drugs begin a frighteningly destructive journey. I work part-time in a residential substance abuse program for women and see the results up close. It takes months of intensive intervention and therapy to help substance abusers stop the destructive journey and begin one that is healthy and functional. And there are no guarantees of success no matter how skilled the interventions, the counselors and therapists, and even the pastors and ministers.

When someone is prosecuted for a drug offense, our country’s system of justice makes government, on behalf of society, the victim of the crime. The real victims are sometimes never seen, as in the case of those whose lives are destroyed by drugs. Even when the victim is identified, the state inserts itself between offender and victim, pleading the case of the victim by means of the laws that were broken. Thus, it is not uncommon in our system for the real needs of the victim to be lost in the process and for the offender to never quite take seriously what his/her actions have done to the real victim.

I see this among the inmates to whom I minister. Despite what injustices there may be in prosecution and sentences, and despite what corruption may exist in the sytem, offenders need to come to a solid realization of what their criminal activities have wrought. They do not need to be continually berated about this, but where there seems to be no realization of it, they need to grasp and own it.