Last month, after Dallas police officer Amber Guyger was sentenced to 10 years in the murder of Botham Jean, the victim’s brother, Brandt Jean, walked across the courtroom, hugged Guyger, and said, “I forgive you.”
I joined others around the country, watching in awe at that act of grace. But I also worried. I worried that black people, like Jean, are expected to forgive in ways others are not. Maybe Guyger, a white police officer, received a lesser sentence than others convicted of murder. And yet I also worry that law itself is so severely weighted toward punishment that it is part of the problem. Legal officials fail to exercise tools of forgiveness built right into the law — and as a result, I worry the rest of us replicate societal inequalities, undermining justice and decency.
Forgiveness — letting go of justified grievances — is supported by every religious and philosophical tradition, as well as by numerous health studies. Forgiving those who wronged us can actually improve our health. As President Nelson Mandela, who led South Africa’s transition from Apartheid to a democracy, once said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemies.”
Contrast treatment of child soldiers globally with treatment of American youthful offenders. International human rights law condemns and punishes adults who involve children in armed conflict. In 2012, the International Criminal Court — established by 122 nations — convicted Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, a warlord in the Democratic Republic of Congo, of enlisting, recruiting, and using children as soldiers. Most nations in the world commit to ensuring that people under 15 do not take part in hostilities. And for those youth drawn into armed conflicts, most nations seek not punishment but absolution. Some communities provide counseling, education, and rehabilitation programs for former child soldiers — and others involve them in rituals of social healing and reconciliation.
In contrast, the US justice system severely punishes minors, often in adult courts and prisons. Yet, like child soldiers, children and teens are drawn into violent activity in the United States when there are few other options, when they are threatened, and when they are induced by adult ideology. The rhetoric of “innocence,” resonant in the context of child soldiers, is usually missing in the context of gang members. Yet in both settings, youth are caught in worlds made by adults, and forgiveness can offer both accountability and opportunity — for society and children.
Legal frameworks inviting minors to describe their misconduct can invite community members to hear and forgive. Restorative justice encourages accountability and service rather than punishment. Many schools in the United States now pursue restorative justice to resolve and even prevent conflicts, curb delinquency, and disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. Some American high schools are replacing failed “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies and automatic suspensions with opportunities for victims to narrate their experiences and for offenders to take responsibility for their actions. It can be an emotionally cathartic experience for victims and offenders, as well as other members of the community, to take turns describing the impact of the offense on each of them.
The leader — often a student peer — de-escalates conflicts, and orchestrates a conversation about what the offender could do that would help the victim. Together they come to an agreement about how to move forward, what the wrongdoer can do to repair injury and what all can do better to avoid future conflicts. Restorative justice alternatives are now the go-to legal tool for prosecutors in the District of Columbia and guide initiatives such as Los Angeles’s Teen Court and in parts of the Republic of Congo.
There are other legal tools for forgiveness: bankruptcy, pardons, amnesties, expungement of criminal records, and discretion by police, prosecutors, and judges to give individuals another chance. These tools should be used — but fairly, not repeating usual power dynamics and prejudices.
Forgiving criminal wrongdoing does raise some risks. Forgiveness may encourage more violations; economists call it a “moral hazard.” But escalating resentments can also be hazardous. So may attributing blame to individuals for circumstances largely outside of their control.
To ask how laws may forgive is not to deny the fact of wrongdoing. Rather, it is to widen the lens to understand larger patterns at work and visualize a more constructive path forward for all. When it comes to the justice system, saying — and hearing — “I forgive you” may prove to be the most just thing we can do.
Martha Minow, 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard, is author of 17 books, most recently, “When Should Law Forgive?”