Forgiveness in the Criminal Justice System

Although I spent my formative years in Catholic school, I am late to the game in practicing forgiveness, both of myself and others. It does not come naturally to me, even though I know there is great value in exercising it.

Turns out, I am not alone in having problems forgiving others. According to the Michigan-based Fetzer Institute, a private institute focused on furthering Americans’ spiritual well-being, most Americans want more forgiveness in their lives. An animating principle of the Fetzer Institute is “the belief that inner transformation is essential to any lasting change.”

In 2010, Fetzer conducted a “Survey of Love and Forgiveness in American Society,” using a sample of 1,000 Americans aged 18+, in addition to an oversample of 300 adults from specific geographic regions and an oversample of 200 “influencers,” defined as business or community leaders. They found the following:

  • In their personal interactions with people, 62% of Americans want more forgiveness in their lives.
  • The need for forgiveness is not limited to their personal lives; 83% agree they need more forgiveness in their communities.
  • 90% of Americans agree more forgiveness is needed in the United States and globally.
  • Most Americans (67%) believe other Americans are forgiving in general.

But with crime, forgiveness is tougher, especially when it comes to violent crimes. The findings were as follows:

  • A little over half (58%) say there are times when people should never be forgiven. Crimes that those surveyed said are unforgiveable include murder (41%); abuse or sexual crimes (26%); and any intentionally committed crime (22%).

So what role does forgiveness have in the criminal justice system? This is the question asked in two separate new books, from James Forman Jr., a professor at Yale Law School and former public defender in Washington DC, and Chris Hayes, the MSNBC news host.

In their discussions of America’s culture around crime and punishment, Hayes asks “What would the politics of crime look like in a place where people worried not only about victimization but also about the costs of overly punitive policing and prosecution?” while Forman considered “What if we strove for compassion, for mercy, for forgiveness? And what if we did this for everybody, including people who have harmed others?”

According to another survey, we may be moving in that direction.

The RTI International and Zogby Analytics poll, released by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, found that 62% of Americans believe that rehabilitation and treatment are the most appropriate responses for those who commit non-violent crimes, with an even higher percentage (74%) for non-violent offenders who are mentally ill. An ACLU report documents a common narrative that lands many non-violent offenders in prison for long lengths of time, including mental illness, substance abuse, and financial desperation—situations that many Americans may be able to relate to from personal experience or through the experience or friends, family members, or neighbors.

Yet, many local criminal justice operations are not aligned with these attitudes and focus more on punitive measures for reasons that include prisons’ contribution to the local economy in the form of jobs and their contribution to population figures (inmates are counted as residing where they are incarcerated, so they add to population counts used to determine political representation and federal funding).

But some inroads are being made.

In New York City, a number of initiatives are underway that have the potential to transform the criminal justice system and how we support people while in prison and once they are released. The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform recently released its report and recommendations, outlining a blueprint for reducing the city’s jail population and developing a new, smaller jail system that would eventually take the place of Rikers Island. Mayor de Blasio has promised re-entry services to everyone in the custody of the Department of Corrections by the end of 2017.

In addition, the Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance is spearheading an initiative to expand and enhance reentry services for people leaving jail and prison and returning to New York City so that they are better connected to services and less likely to reoffend.

These efforts and others around the country seem to be working toward criminal justice policies and practices that are more in alignment with the public’s attitudes around rehabilitation and treatment for non-violent offenders, and taking a step toward a more forgiving system.