Properly trained, thoughtful, safe community-based processes that can hold abusers
accountable and end trans-generational cycles of sexual abuse is what is called for in both the US
and in India… As a child sexual abuse survivor myself, this would be a wonderful thing for me to
do with both the Indian Diasporic community here in the US, and also, someday, in India.
The director of the
restorative-justice project at
the National Council on Crime
and Delinquency speaks
to George Joseph
As a child, Sujatha Baliga, director of the restorative- justice project at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in Oakland, California, was abused.
Years later, filled with anger, she sought out the Dalai
Lama, who was in Dharmasala then. She wrote a letter to the
Tibetan spiritual leader saying anger was killing her.
He called her and spoke to her for an hour. He gave her two
pieces of advice. The first was to meditate. The second was to
open her heart, forgive and forget, which she was not ready
At Dharmasala, she also heard stories of extreme suffering
from Tibetans, who told her that they had survived because
they forgave those who committed the heinous crimes.
Back in the United States, she joined an intensive 10-day
meditation course. On the last day of which, she says, she
experienced a complete relinquishment of anger and hatred
and the desire for retribution.
What she didn’t relinquish was the desire to work for victims like her.
The youngest child in her Pennsylvania-based family, she
had always excelled in academics. After college, she moved to
New York and worked with battered women. And after finishing law school, restorative justice piqued her interest.
It was a relatively new concept, and it fit into the experience she had gone through.
The method is usually used in less serious crimes like property offenses in which the wrong can be clearly righted —
stolen property returned, vandalized material replaced.
But Baliga recently applied the concept in a murder case.
On March 28, 2010, Conor McBride, 19, shot his fiancée
Ann Margaret Grosmaire, 19.
Students at Tallahassee Community College, Florida, they
had been fighting for 38 hours in person, and over the phone.
It ended in the shooting.
That night, Andy Grosmaire, Ann’s father, stood beside his
daughter’s bed in the intensive-care unit.
Andy felt her say, ‘Forgive him.’
His response was immediate. ‘No.’
But Andy kept hearing his daughter’s voice: ‘Forgive him.
Four days later, Ann died.
Her parents, practicing Catholics, met a remorseful Conor.
They wanted to forgive him; they did not want him to face
death penalty or life in prison.
After much research they found Baliga, an attorney practicing restorative justice.
A former public defender, she facilitated face-to-face meetings of all the involved parties, including Jack Campbell, the
Leon County assistant state attorney, who was not convinced
about restorative justice.
Campbell later relented and offered Conor a choice: A 20-
year sentence plus 10 years of probation, rather than a life
term. He accepted it as did the families involved.
Baliga on her work and concepts:
COUR TESY: SUJATHA BALIGA. COM
What is restorative justice? How important is it?
Restorative justice is a collection of community-based processes that hold people who cause harm directly accountable
to the people they’ve harmed. Ideally, it involves face-to-face
dialogue and participatory decision-making, involving all
those affected by a crime or wrongdoing. Restorative justice
is a theory of justice that calls us to a paradigm shift.
To quote my mentor Howard Zehr, rather than asking the
Why did you choose it as a career?
traditional justice system questions of ‘What law was bro-
ken? Who broke it? How should we punish them?’ restora-
tive justice asks, ‘What harm has been done? What needs
have arisen? Whose obligation is it to meet those needs?’
Today, my work primarily takes the form of helping young
people meet face-to-face with the people that they burglar-
ized, robbed, or assaulted. They and their families work with
their victim to heal what they have done. When they repair
the harm, no charges are filed and the case is dropped. If they
fail to complete their obligations, the case is returned to the
prosecutor, but the program is very effective, and only a
handful of cases have been returned in the 7 years we have
been doing this.
Having served as a victims’ advocate and also as a criminal
defense attorney, I found our traditional criminal justice system flawed in many regards on both sides. Restorative justice
appeals to me because it simultaneously meets the needs of
victims, holds wrongdoers accountable while believing in
their capacity to change, reintegrates those who’ve done
wrong, and engages the community to restore both the person who caused harm and the person who has been harmed
back into the fold.
Are you the only one who is practicing it?
I am by no means the only one, but it’s true that there aren’t
very many lawyers incorporating restorative justice into their
work. This is partly because it’s a new and growing field.