Compassion in Redemption

I received a very thoughtful and eloquent response to my Sept. 20, 2023 blog, "Redemption is Always Possible." This response came to me from a Federal District Judge in Ann Arbor, Michigan:

I have a lot of responses. At the beginning of my judgeship, now almost 10 years ago, I was startled by defendants and their families who were asking me for forgiveness and mercy at the time of their sentencing. I was confused by those requests. I wasn't the victim of the crime, and more importantly, I'm not a clergy member and I didn't feel qualified to offer mercy. But as time went on, I did some reading about mercy and forgiveness, and I realized how important it is for the individuals who were asking for it, so I started trying to provide both when it felt appropriate. I started finding words that would convey mercy and forgiveness. Often, I quote Bryan Stevenson and tell the defendant that "we are all more than the worst thing we've ever done" and then I go from there to talk about the defendant's potential and something good that they have done.

Sometimes I have to dig deep for the positives — one time I had watched what's called pole camera footage as part of the case. It's a camera that law enforcement installs outside someone's house to get access to live video of who's coming and going. (They are installed by cops posing as utility line workers fixing an electrical or telephone line, hence the term "pole" camera.) I saw on the camera that the defendant had come home at night and noticed that his neighbor's trash cans were still out. He went and brought them to his neighbor's house. I was able to tell him that when no one was looking, or so he thought, he was kind to his neighbors and to be commended for that. I think to this day, everyone I have offered forgiveness and mercy to has started to cry — they have so little of that in their lives.

Last week I was at a conference in Washington, D.C., called "Rewriting the Sentence." It was put on by the Aleph Institute and the Center for Human Dignity. The whole thing was overwhelming. At the end, we had a virtual meeting with three prisoners in a Virginia state prison. One had been in custody for 37 years and he got his first visit in all those years about six months prior when the law school clinic reached out to him to be a part of a restorative justice project. The other two had been in for 17 and 20 years respectively. It was a powerful experience to hear how they felt about the judge who sentenced them, about the victims they had harmed, and about their own lives. One thing I took away from that session was that going to prison is a passive thing for a defendant. Restorative justice is the opposite. It requires hard work for a defendant, including actually taking responsibility for the harm they caused.

I spoke on a panel called "Courage and Compassion in Sentencing." The hardest part of the panel was that one of the other two judges on the panel was a federal judge in New Jersey whose only son had been murdered by a man who hated women having positions of authority. Her husband was also shot and he had come to the conference as well. Esther had a picture of her son on the inside of her folder with her remarks — I have that same picture in my office because I sent her a letter when he was murdered, and someone sent me a thank-you with the same picture of him. But he sure came to life for me in her binder. Judge Salas said that she sentences very differently after being a crime victim. She has more compassion and more forgiveness and mercy. She has been so severely traumatized that she started to understand what she referred to as "dysregulation" of emotions and actions, and she had to engage in some intensive work on her own and with her husband to begin the healing process. That gave her insight into some of the defendants' experiences that led to their criminal conduct.

I have to get back to work. Thanks for a chance to think about all of this. It's a part of my everyday life now, but it's still good to stop and think.