Is Forgiveness a Viable Option for the Justice System?

conor mcbrideConor McBride shot his fiancee in the face. He immediately confessed and turned himself in. Through a process called “restorative justice,” discussed at length in this New York Times article, he received a much lighter sentence than usual as he, his family, and the victim’s family all three came together to offer apologies and forgiveness. Instead of the typical life sentence, McBride was sentenced to 20 years with 10 years of probation following his release. The story relates the following anecdote from the victim’s hospital room, as her father sat by her bedside and she, in a comatose state, was being kept alive by modern technology:

Ann’s face was covered in bandages, and she was intubated and unconscious, but Andy felt her say, “Forgive him.” His response was immediate. “No,” he said out loud. “No way. It’s impossible.” But Andy kept hearing his daughter’s voice: “Forgive him. Forgive him.”

Struggling to come to grips with what the father believes was his soon to be deceased daughter’s plea, he was moved to do something unusual – extend forgiveness and grace to the one who shot her. However, that was not enough for this victim’s family. They believed that the murderer, the one who killed their daughter, should have his sentence affected by their forgiveness and his own contrition.

While the Bible clearly calls followers of Christ to forgive those who harm them, should this same offer of forgiveness play a part in the judicial system? Is it more effective than the typically applied penal code? I’m not sure I am smart enough to know the answer, but I’ll be honest: the family’s response of forgiveness and grace is astonishing and Christ-like. What is more, their forgiveness has not only changed the life of the young man who took their daughter’s life, it has helped change a community. Consider this from the end of the article:

As much as the Grosmaires say that forgiveness helped them, so, too, has the story of their forgiveness. They’ve spoken about it to church groups and prayer breakfasts around Tallahassee and plan to do more talks. The story is a signpost in the wilderness, something solid and decent they can return to while wandering in this parallel universe without their youngest daughter. Kate Grosmaire keeps asking herself if she has really forgiven Conor. “I think about it all the time,” she said. “Is that forgiveness still there? Have I released that debt?” Even as the answer comes back yes, she says, it can’t erase her awareness of what she no longer has. “Forgiving Conor doesn’t change the fact that Ann is not with us. My daughter was shot, and she died. I walk by her empty bedroom at least twice a day.”

I am curious to hear your thoughts. Is restorative justice a viable option in the American justice system? Should a Christian ethic of grace and forgiveness change the way in which we apply justice? What do you think?