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Restorative Justice Attorney and Penn Law Alum sujatha baliga L’99 Receives MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’

September 26, 2019

Restorative justice attorney sujatha baliga L’99, has been named a 2019 MacArthur Fellow by the John D. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation for her work as the director of the Restorative Justice Project at Impact Justice in Oakland, Calif. 

The $625,000 award is known as a “genius grant” and recognizes those who have shown “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.”

Restorative justice focuses on survivor-based practices that bring together crime survivors, offenders, family, and community members with the goals of helping survivors heal while allowing offenders to take accountability without entering the traditional avenues of the criminal justice system. The concept aims to break cycles of violence and recidivism as well as to provide an alternative to incarceration “and diminish its highly disproportionate and detrimental effects on communities of color,” according to Impact Justice.

“As a child sexual abuse survivor growing up in an immigrant family, I was more afraid of ‘help’ than I was of my father,” baliga said in a statement regarding her award. “I didn’t want to be placed in foster care or for my father to be locked up, and I worried that telling the truth might trigger immigration consequences for my family. Ultimately, I was drawn to restorative justice because it works best without involving the criminal legal system or other systems of separation and oppression.”

Before law school, the Shippensburg, Pa. native had a private meeting with the Dalai Lama after leaving him a letter at his front gate. In 2013, baliga recounted the experience to the New York Times, which culminated in two pieces of advice: to meditate and “to align myself with my enemy; to consider opening my heart to them. I laughed out loud. I’m like: ‘I’m going to law school to lock those guys up! I’m not aligning myself with anybody.’ He pats me on the knee and says, ‘O.K., just meditate.’”

After graduating from Penn Law, baliga worked as public defender in New York City and later on death penalty appeals in California. She received a Soros Justice Fellowship in 2008, during which she began building the foundation of restorative justice in the Oakland area. baliga has also developed a restorative justice diversion program for young offenders in Alameda County and works with another seven counties across the country in furtherance of restorative justice goals.

“The entire Impact Justice family offers our heartfelt congratulations to sujatha for being selected as a MacArthur Fellow,” said Alex Busansky, president of Impact Justice, in a statement. “We’re honored to work with her to create a world where we can meet the needs of crime survivors and offer people opportunities to take accountability for harms they cause without getting pushed into the criminal justice system. We’re excited to expand this work further to make restorative justice an option for more communities seeking alternatives to criminalization and incarceration.”

Past Penn Law recipients include: 

  • Anthony Amsterdam L’60, Attorney and Legal Scholar | MacArthur Fellows Class of 1989
  • David Rudovsky, Senior Fellow at Penn Law | MacArthur Fellows Class of 1986