Galvanizing Hope :: Sujatha Baliga & Restorative Justice

gal· va· nize [gal-vuh-nahyz]; verb

1. to stimulate
2. to treat with induced direct current
3. to startle into sudden activity
4. to coat (metal) with zinc (to add strength)

Welcome to our “Galvanizing Hope” series.  This series, as we mentioned in our “On Goals and Living Intentionally” post back in June, will highlight ideas, individuals or organizations that strengthen our hope in our collective future and that represent our ability to achieve great things, both as individuals and as a community.  When our momentum waivers, when burn out or despair sets in, when the world seems to be working against humanity’s best interest, we turn toward the light of the people or organizations highlighted in this series to remind us that we are all interconnected and that, together, we can create a better future.

Sujatha Baliga


Restorative Justice Advocate :: Sujatha Baliga

I first found out about the Restorative Justice movement through Sujatha Baliga, back in 2006, when I met her and her husband, Jason (who is equally inspiring, by the way), at their then-home in Brooklyn, New York.  Long time friends of Kai’s, we had flown in to spend New Year’s weekend with them.  Within a couple of hours of being around Sujatha, I knew she would play a pivotal role, not only in my life, but in the lives of many others.  One of my everyday-heroes, Sujatha is one of those people who reminds you of what it is to be wholly human, she constantly strives to stay connected with the world and the people around her.  Let me tell you more about her story and why she inspires me and then I’ll tell you more about RJ (Restorative Justice).


Currently serving as Director of the Restorative Justice Project for the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, Sujatha is equally dedicated to helping both people offended and people accused of crimes.  She has an amazing and beautiful personal story about how she was called to practice and preach Restorative Justice.



The Battered & Abused, Rage and the Dalai Lama

After graduating from college, Sujatha worked a few years with battered women’s shelters, with children who were abused and with young girls from Nepal who were abducted and taken into Bombay’s red light district to be used as sex slaves.  She describes these years as a time when she was “trying to work out my own history of being sexually abused by my father” and she recognizes that her work at the time was being “fueled by this real rage at what had happened to me.”   Her fury cemented her desire to go to law school and become a prosecutor so that she could “lock up all the people who” committed heinous crimes against women and children.

At one point, Sujatha found out that some of the cops she was working with and trying to build relationships with were corrupt.  It forced her to take a break from the emotionally demanding work and she began to recognize her rage as damaging.  “It was eating me up, it was just destroying me personally.  I had migraines and I had all kinds of health complications.  My relationships were really complicated with my friends and my boyfriend.  It was just bad, all around bad.”

In a search for answers and to gain some peace she went hiking in the Himalayas.  There, she met the Tibetan community in exile.  “Hearing their stories of victim-hood changed me permanently. It was a complete and total wake up call that people could be living lives that made my childhood look like a cakewalk and, not to diminish what happened to me, but really just abuse and trauma after abuse and trauma for decades on end.”  But the thing that struck Sujatha most was that they seemed to be happier than she was.  “Much, much happier,” she says.

In an attempt to understand their happiness she started talking with them.  They all suggested she write a letter to the Dalai Lama to ask him what to do about her unhappiness and rage.  Sujatha laughs and recounts, “I thought…’Well, he is busy.  I don’t want to bother him with this’.”  But her Tibetan friends continued to press her to write the letter so she did.  And she got a response back from his office and only a few days later found herself in a private audience with his Holiness.  There she asked him, “How do I work on behalf of the abused and the oppressed without anger as the motivating factor?”

The Dalai Lama’s very specific advice eventually led Sujatha to “a personal transformation” within herself that allowed her to accept her suffering and to, eventually, forgive her father.  [As a side note I think it’s important to note Sujatha’s take on forgiveness here in relation to RJ:  “Forgiveness and restorative justice are really different things. I can’t think of a better scenario for growing forgiveness or cultivating forgiveness then restorative processes but I don’t see restorative processes as being designed to produce forgiveness…..we need to honor wherever victims are in their journey and it may or may not involve forgiveness.  It just happened to be that way for me.”]  In addition, after Sujatha incorporated some of the things the Dalai Lama suggested in to her life, such as meditation, she found that her health and relationship problems “vanished”.  In an attempt to “consider aligning myself in my heart with my enemies”, another piece of advice from the Dalai Lama, she decided to become a criminal defense lawyer instead of a prosecutor.


How Being a Public Defender led to Restorative Justice

Sujatha spent several years as an appellate public defender in New Mexico and at the Office of the Appellate Defender in New York City, eventually relocating to California in 2006 to work on capital cases.  During her time as a public defender Sujatha had an experience with a client that made her realize that the justice system and her own choice to become a defense attorney were flawed approaches to justice and real healing.

She was working with a young man, 19 years old, and she felt they had an absolute win on appeal for him.  He had killed his cousin’s boyfriend, who was the father of his cousin’s child, by stabbing him in a drunken fight.  It was a very close call on self-defense.  All witnesses agreed that the other guy had started the fight and was pummeling Sujatha’s client.  It was believed that the knife came from the person killed during the fight but that evidence had been excluded by the court.  This meant that it was a complete reversible error and she would be able to get her client a new trial.

Sujatha recounts, “Meanwhile there was no question that my guy killed this other guy.  Regardless if it was self defense, somebody was dead.  Somebody he cared about, the father of his favorite cousin’s child was dead at his own hands. And the guilt he was carrying was unbearable.”  At the original sentencing hearing, the family had requested that he offer some kind of acceptance of what he did, they wanted to hear he was sorry, but the client’s defense attorney at the time, as they should have and for his legal protection, required that he say nothing.

Later, as Sujatha was working with her young client he broke down and sobbed.  He had written a letter of apology to his family explaining how much he wished he could take that fatal night back and in it he took responsibility for how he could have acted differently to avoid the fight.  And he wanted to send it to his family so they knew that he was sorry.  As his defense attorney Sujatha responded, “You need to tear that letter up.  Or read it to your priest.  But don’t ever, ever, ever send that letter.”

Sujatha vividly remembers what happened next.  She watched a coldness come over him.  She had just closed the door on his capacity to be able to take responsibility and to say “I’m sorry”.  As she drove home that evening she was tortured and thought, “What did I just do?  As a defense attorney I did absolutely the right thing but, really,what did I do?  What have I taught him and how is he going to do in the world without this capacity to give the apology that his own family so desperately wants and needs?”.   It was then she realized it “did not sit well with my soul and I knew we needed to do things a different way.”


A  Different Way

Sujatha found a “different way” through Restorative Justice.  And she’s leading by impressive example.

Sujatha Baliga Speaking about Restorative Justice (photo credit :

In 2008, Sujatha was awarded a Soros Justice Fellowship, which she used to spearhead a groundbreaking restorative juvenile diversion program in Alameda County, CA, that keeps more than 100 children out of the juvenile justice system each year.  She teaches restorative justice to undergraduates and law students, is a frequent guest lecturer at academic institutions and conferences and has served as a consultant to the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.   She is regularly invited to address groups of prisoners and restorative justice programs about her personal experiences as a survivor of child sexual abuse and her path to forgiveness and compassion (see Resolve to Stop the Violence Program and Inside Prison Project) and has testified before legislative bodies on proposed legislation impacting criminal and civil penalties for sexual assault and abuse. As the Director of Community Justice Works in Oakland, CA, she expanded the restorative juvenile diversion program she began through her Soros Fellowship.  She is now Senior Program Specialist at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, where she assists communities in implementing restorative justice alternatives to juvenile detention and zero-tolerance school discipline policies.  As an emerging national voice in restorative justice, she was honored as Northeastern University Law School’s Daynard Fellow, and has been a guest on NPR’s Talk of the Nation.  And if that weren’t enough, Sujatha is also the Founder and Executive Director of The Paragate Project, an organization dedicated to encouraging deep, non-judgmental, personal inquiry into the value of forgiveness of self and others.

And now you may understand why I, and so many others, find her so inspirational! 


So, What is Restorative Justice anyway?

Restorative Justice is recognizing that crime harms people and communities, first and foremost, and isn’t simply a violation of state or federal law.  RJ brings all parties involved in a crime – the harmed, those who have harmed, family and community members who are affected by the crime (including proper authorities, like police or attorneys) – together, and gives them equal opportunity to actively and collaboratively determine how to repair the harm that has been done.  In this context,  the victim of a crime is able to voice how the crime affected him or her, is able to directly address the person who committed the crime and is able to lay out their needs for reparation while being surrounded by people who support  them.   Likewise, the person who committed the crime has to face the person/people they harmed, are given the opportunity to accept full responsibility for their actions and are given the support to both repair the harm they inflicted and to prevent future criminal behavior.


Why Use Restorative Justice vs. our current justice system?

Studies have shown that Restorative Justice practices reduce recidivism rates by as much as 27%! 1  Studies show that for every dollar spent in the U.S. on restorative justice we save eight dollars on incarceration costs.  The United States currently has the highest incarceration rate in the world.  The population of people in prison has increased 800% over the last 30 years, while the cost to maintain the prison system has grown by a staggering 1700%. 2  Restorative Justice practices could help substantially reduce recidivism and incarceration costs in relation to low-level and non-violent crimes.

But the most striking thing about Restorative Justice, for me, is the restorative and transformational nature of it.  It gives victims a voice so that they can emerge as survivors and advocates, healthier and more whole (instead of being re-victimized by the courts and given no say in how the offender is delegated punishment).  Studies have shown Restorative Justice conferences have reduced PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) for victims of crimes by as much as 40%.  It also gives offenders the chance to be seen as human, fallible but accountable, and offers them an opportunity to make amends and to get help for the underlying problem (instead of being told by lawyers to withhold acknowledgement of the harm they inflicted then being warehoused without support to rehabilitate).  In fact, when RJ is used in place of court systems in cases of juvenile crime, 9 out of 10 offenders complete their agreement and criminal charges are dropped.  Only 10% of them end up committing another crime, compared to about 70% of those who go through the traditional criminal-justice system. 3  Lastly, RJ recognizes that community members, family and friends, public officials and authorities, are all affected by crime and it gives them voice in the outcome as well.

Restorative Justice is a means for consensus-based and victims-centered reparation to be made in a space that allows honesty and compassion.  And ultimately, compassion helps break the cycles of trauma that lie silently beneath most criminal behavior.  Restorative Justice embodies everything that Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed when he said,

“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.

This is the interrelated structure of reality.”


To find out more about Restorative Justice:

Examine restorative justice in real world contexts, through a conversation-style format with Howard Zehr and guests via a FREE Real World Restorative Justice Webinar Series.  Next webinar is December 5: “Trauma and restorative justice”.

Listen to Sujatha tell her personal story on Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast with David Onek.

Sujatha discusses a particularly moving story about how Restorative Justice was used in a case where a 19 year old young man killed his 18 year old fiance on NPR Talk of the Nation.

Learn more about the rules of Restorative Justice by watching Sujatha’s speech Beyond the Binary: Restorative Justice as Liberatory Practice”


What are your thoughts on Restorative Justice or the Criminal Justice System?  How have you dealt with crime, trauma or tragedy in your life?  How has rage affected your life?  What are your feelings about forgiveness?  Or about reparation?  Whom are you inspired by?  Please comment, share and discuss.


  1. Just Action :: Restorative Justice, Creating a Safer Society. Study conducted by Lawrence Sherman. “Evaluations conducted by seven Cambridge led experiments in Restorative Justice showed that the experience of victim-mediation reduced re-conviction and recidivism by 27%”
  2. ACLU: Senate Hearing Explores Exorbitant Costs of Incarceration
  3. Parade : A New Kind of Criminal Justice

1 comment to Galvanizing Hope :: Restorative Justice

  • It just occurred to me to check in on your lives. Restorative Justice makes complete sense to my heart, so I’m commenting here. It looks like your travel and posting are slowed down. Is what you are learning shifting how you are feeling about the initial framing of this adventure?

    Anyway, concerning RJ, I was first exposed to it in the early ’90s when it was being piloted in some of the western counties of New York State. Somewhere in my basement is the graduate paper that was shared at a conference I attended on it. While I haven’t done anything significant to further its practice in the intern, teh concept strongly influences the thinking I’ve done that has led me to see us a citizen’s with Constitutional matters to redress around our currency, corporate personhood, executive signing statements, the War Powers Resolution, and the de-facto violation of the Establishment Clause via ensconcing CapitalismFail as a functional state religion. An overreaching application of the Commerce Clause is also in the mix of things that systemically challenge the practice of Restorative Justice. As long as we have laws limiting liability regarding economic choices, irresponsibility will continue to be practiced, as well as increase in the magnitude of that irresponsibility. Such is the nature of power: the right to be irresponsible.

    In your travels, I bet you are observing these truths struggled to be practice, which, as US citizens, we have had the privilege and immaturity to hide from: freedom is the right to be responsible; property, as wealth, is the right to be responsible. Aren’t we passionately engaged in a trusted race to the bottom (near-term extinction) having kicked in the afterburners on the bullet train of globalized debt-based capitalism with Arctic carbon reentering the planet’s carbon cycle?

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