Do Hugs Belong in Criminal Proceedings?

By Lisa F. Geherin posted 11-18-2019 14:14


On October 2, 2019, former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the fatal killing of Botham Jean in his own apartment. Then, in an interesting turn of events, the victim’s brother, Brandt Jean, hugged Guyger during the sentencing phase, telling her in part, “I love you as a person, and I don’t wish anything bad on you.” That act of kindness seemed to spawn another, when the presiding judge, Tammy Kemp, also hugged Guyger before she was led out of the courtroom. Whether you agree with or can even comprehend these acts, it begs the question of how empathy and forgiveness play a role in criminal proceedings.

According to the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation, the answer lies in a process called “restorative justice.” Restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by the criminal behavior. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that allow all willing stakeholders to meet…. This can lead to transformation of people, relationships and communities.”

And it appears to be working. Restorative Justice Colorado shares “stories from the field” that demonstrate the huge impact the process can have on those involved. In one case, a young woman was killed after falling out of the back of a pickup truck driven by the defendant, who was drunk. The judge, who rejected a plea agreement when the victim’s family mentioned that they had lots of unanswered questions, suggested a facilitated group conference between the victim’s family and the defendant. What began as an emotional sharing of individual perspectives turned into a constructive discussion about how to curb the increase in drinking and driving in that community. The victim’s family also suggested that some of the defendant’s public service could be fulfilled through prevention efforts focused on decreasing drinking in the younger adult population.

Even law schools are offering classes in restorative justice. At Vermont Law School, students can specialize in restorative justice. And Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law offers a restorative justice practicum on in which students have field placements 12 hours a week and focus on “circle training.”