Buddha Would Probably Like Restorative Justice

A guest post by Lorenn Walker, public health educator and longtime meditator, on the compassion of restorative justice.

Lorenn Walker
21 March 2013

“I’m scared. He’s coming. I don’t know what to do,” says Colleen, crying while wringing tissue in her hands.

“Breathe,” I tell her.

Melissa, Colleen’s 29-year-old daughter, is sitting at the table with us. She silently stares ahead with flush red cheeks.

Minutes later, two loud thuds vibrate the table. A heavy iron door opens and closes in another room, next we hear clanking chains. In a few moments William, a thin man dressed in a tan shirt tucked neatly into matching pants, walks toward us. An armed prison guard follows him.

William sits in an empty chair across from Colleen and Melissa, and I am at the end of the table. The guard walks off to the side to join about 30 other people in a darkened area of the room outside the lite table. Three large television cameras are pointed toward us at the table.

This was the scene at State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Washington on a rainy grey day in July 2011. The four of us sitting round the table are participating in a restorative dialogue, also known as victim offender mediation. The meeting is being filmed for an Oprah Winfrey Network program.

Seven and a half years earlier, William participated in the robbery and senseless murder of Bob, a tool salesman, and beloved husband of Colleen, and father of Melissa. It was a random theft that turned horrific. It left an innocent man dead, and his family struggling with terrible pain for years. It also created suffering and hardship for William’s family, and for him too. “My life has been a nightmare since that day,” he laments.

The brutal murder and violence took on a terrible life of its own. Anger and hostility fueled Colleen for over seven years. Her resentment was harming her. “You killed me that day too. You ruined my life,” she told William. The stress of maintaining her bitterness was destroying her physically and emotionally. She took an array of pills to control her high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, and insomnia.

Melissa’s loss was greater than only her father, who she was so close to that they spoke on the phone several times a day, and even after she married, took family vacations together. “It’s not just that you took my father, but you took a part of my mother too,” she told William. Since her father’s murder, she has constantly struggled to keep her mother from falling into deeper depression. When her father killed so was her happy-go-lucky mom.

The awful pain he caused others haunts William too. Shame and guilt plague him. “I cry every night.” He tried killing himself three times. His front tooth was knocked out when another imprisoned man beat him. Because of his suicide attempts he is confined in a mental heath unit. Being in prison, “We are treated like numbers not people. It’s like living in a still photograph.” His wife divorced him. He has had no contact with his children since he was arrested seven years ago. No one visits him. While his mother and brother still love him, they too were harmed by the crime.

All three people meeting are wounded and suffering from the horrible violence, and its consequences. The restorative dialogue is an opportunity for them to look for some healing, and maybe leave feeling better than they did when they arrived.

Colleen and Melissa have a list of specific questions they want answered. Besides Why, they want to ask William, “Did Bob say anything about his family before he died? Did he want us to know his last thoughts were of us? Did he say he loved us?”

William only hopes that his being accountable, respectful, and forthright answering their questions will help show his remorse, which might possibly help Colleen and Melissa. He has no expectations of redemption or forgiveness. He makes clear that the meeting is only for them, and not for him.

Before the meeting, Melissa meets with William’s mother at the Bob’s grave. It is a poignant meeting where one mother is able to lessen the guilt of the other for having “raised a murderer.” And William’s mother is able to show Colleen that she is not a “monster,” and they are more similar than different. They share tears and fall into each other’s arms.

The restorative meeting at the prison is the culmination of six months preparation. Countless conversations, adding up to hundreds of hours, take place with Colleen, Melissa, their loved ones, prison staff, and professionals working with them, and myself. William too has countless discussions with people including me, his prison counselors, and other prison staff. There are also many discussions between the prion staff, professionals and myself. The discussions include details about how people feel, what they hope to gain from the meeting, and developing the meeting’s format.

The meeting begins with Melissa and Colleen opening the process. They choose what they wanted to say. Melissa opened the dialogue with a prayer. Next William spoke. It was important that he was accountable initially, and say what happened first. In court it is the opposite where the prosecution presents evidence, and the victims testify first, then the defense contradicts them. William’s “laying his cards on the table” immediately helped Colleen and Melissa know right away what he was thinking and feeling. His going first also prevented him from being defensive, which would have been unhelpful for everyone.

The meeting at the prison lasts almost five hours. There are many tears and much sadness, but there is also hope and inspiration. Melissa proclaims, “I forgive you because if I don’t it will keep taking my life away. I want to be all the mother I can be for my children. I don’t want to be a victim of what you did forever.”

Colleen says “I can’t forgive you,” but before William is lead away back to his cell, Colleen asks, “Can I hug him?” While she does, she says, “I can’t believe I am hugging the man who murdered my husband.” Melissa and I also hug William. Later his counselor says the restorative meeting was “unbelievable.” William told him, “That was the first time I was hugged in seven years.”

Months after Colleen, Melissa and William met for the restorative dialogue, each continues to benefit. Each is more relaxed, more at peace, and has more hope where before there was fear and resentment. They are different people no longer enslaved and haunted by the terrible act. Colleen says, “I’m weaning off my blood pressure medication and I’m off my cholesterol pills. I feel great. I’m so grateful we had that meeting. No more pity parties for me. I’m doing things that are good for me now.” Melissa says, “I have my mother back.” William is sleeping at night for the first time in years. All three are also helping others now. Colleen is working with a victim advocacy group by speaking with both prosecuting and defense attorneys. “I am letting them know these meetings can be healing.” Melissa is speaking about the power of forgiveness in her community, and William has started a support group for incarcerated people to help with reentry when they are released. “It feels great helping,” he says.

A Buddhist perspective of restorative justice sees first it is built on the appreciation for the interdependent nature of reality and interconnectedness. The Dalai Lama says: “In everything we do, there is cause and effect, cause and effect. In our daily lives the food we eat, the work we undertake, and our relaxation are all a function of our action: our action. This is karma. We cannot, therefore, throw up our hands whenever we find ourselves confronted by unavoidable suffering.”

Restorative justice recognizes that our actions affect others. William’s behavior not only caused horrible harm for Bob, who lost his life, but Colleen, Melissa, and many others also suffered from the violence. Restorative justice is about how people are affected from wrongdoing, and what can be done to help make things right.

Other Buddhist principles that restorative justice promotes are compassion and non-violence. Restorative processes are built on respect and compassion, which put people’s needs first. David Loy, professor of Buddhism, author of several books, and a Zen teacher himself, believes that restorative justice is like “Buddhist justice [which] grows out of compassion for everyone involved when someone hurts another.”

Restorative justice gives individuals the opportunity to voice their pain, and to be heard about what might help make things right. Simply sitting with someone and allowing him or her to express their sorrow and shame can be a healing experience.

Colleen says she developed “empathy and understanding” for William from meeting him. It helped her heal knowing he was remorseful. Certainly she will never forget her terrible loss, and her scares will remain, but she says, “I am a changed lady. I lost 25 pounds.”

A harmed person can have physical and material needs, and almost always they have emotional needs. A restorative response is completely opposite from our criminal justice system, which focuses on blaming and punishment.

Identifying, and then imposing retribution on the person who caused the harm, is the purpose of our criminal justice system. Crime victims’ needs are rarely addressed, and their emotional needs are practically never considered. While states do provide minimal financial victim compensation; often help for sexual assault victims; and usually victim witness support when a case goes to court; the system otherwise basically ignores victims’ needs.

Our justice system puts more resources into retribution and punishing offenders, than helping the people harmed by wrongdoing. Instead the people who committed the offenses alone are given center stage in the system, and normally they are treated inhumanely. It is as if the criminal justice system were a bully parent who sees a child tormenting another. This ignorant parent spends a lot of time validating who the wrongdoing child is, and then smacks them down hard, with little regard for the hurt child. The parent misses the opportunity to use a “teachable moment” for educating the children on non-violence, and instead reinforces the bad behavior by modeling it.

Our system takes people accused of crimes forcefully from the community, and puts them into jail. It only wants to know if you committed the crime and does not care if you are sorry or what has happened to the victim. Offenders are put into steel handcuffs and leg shackles, they are photographed, finger printed, and sometimes their DNA is taken. They are frequently housed with dangerous people including other inmates and jail staff too. Of course not all incarcerated people or jailers behave unethically, but it should not surprise anyone that our correction system does not rehabilitate people and instead can cause further bad behavior.

Phil Zimbardo’s 1971 research, known as the Stanford Prison Experiment, showed how our criminal justice system causes and contributes to terrible behavior and results. In Zimbardo’s classic study college students were randomly selected to participate in a mock prison setting in the basement of the psychology department at Stanford. They were evaluated psychologically before participating and all found to be competent and emotionally healthy. The experiment was to run for two weeks, but after only six days, when the students assigned to the jailor positions become sadistic, and the inmates become stressed and hopeless, the study was terminated.

The quest for revenge and retribution is paramount in our criminal justice system where the death penalty is imposed by 34 American states and the federal government. These governments ironically put their resources into a violent response to violent offenders, rather than care and compassion for victims and others. Executions cost more than keeping people alive in prison for life. Even in cases where there is questionable guilt, and a person adamantly claims innocence; some states persist in carrying out executions. Executions do not keep communities safer either. The murder rates in the 34 states where the death penalty is allowed are higher than the states without it.

Another important Buddhist principle promoted by restorative justice is providing people with practices, and allowing them to discover for themselves what they need to heal. The criminal justice system gives people no meaningful roles. Non-professionals are only witnesses, and jurors are fact finders. Crime victims are no better off. Besides reporting crimes, and then testifying when cases go to trial, and providing victim impact statements, when there are convictions, the criminal justice system gives them no role in the system.

Restorative justice on the other hand includes as many people as possible, affected by specific incidents of wrongdoing, in practices that address their needs and repairing the harm. The Buddha did not teach people doctrines that they were instructed to follow. He gave individuals the freedom to experiment and to see what was true for them.

Restorative justice likewise provides practices for people to participate in, and to learn from. It is not like the criminal justice system where others, mainly lawyers, judges and juries, say what is correct and needed. Restorative practices allow participants to engage in and decide what they need to make things right.

While the meeting at the prison in Walla Walla bordered on the quintessential restorative meeting, with three of the main key stakeholders participating, a wider circle could have been even better. This circle could have included the other man who murdered Bob, his loved ones, and William’s loved ones, and also others who loved Bob.

Restorative justice takes many forms and can be applied in any case where someone is willing to face their suffering. Meetings between offenders and victims are not necessary, and are not possible in most cases. Most crimes in the United States go without anyone ever being arrested, and even if someone is arrested, many crime victims do want to meet with offenders and visa versa. Also many people who have committed crimes do not know whom they harmed. Yet all can participate in restorative processes that promote healing. The three main questions that any level of restorative encounters ask are: 1) Who was harmed? 2) How were they harmed? 3) What can be done to possibly repair the harm?

Meeting face to face is something that Thich Nhat Hanh believes is a useful Buddhist practice for addressing conflict. And Dzogchen Ponlop says “[I]f Buddha were with us today, he might send us all to get training in group dynamics, team building, and conflict resolution.”

Buddha probably would be a huge proponent of restorative justice. It recognizes we are interconnected, promotes compassion and non-violence and it provides participatory practices that respect individuals, and allows them to learn for themselves what they need to heal.

Lorenn Walker

Lorenn Walker, JD, MPH, is a Hawai’i-based public health educator who focuses on building peace and increasing individual and organizational performance. She received the 2011 John Byrd Pioneer Award for Restorative and Community Justice from the National Conference on Restorative Justice. She has meditated for over thirty years.