Developed by Van Jones and airing on CNN, The Redemption Projectoffers a rare glimpse into the restorative justice process by following the victim, or surviving family members, of a tragic crime as they prepare to meet with their offender in the hopes of achieving a sense of closure and, potentially, healing. Serving as guide for the viewer throughout this incredible process, Jones hopes that this experience will not only demonstrate the power of grace between offender and victim, but also provide an example to a broken and angry culture as well.
“I have a friend [named] Jason Cohen, who is an Oscar-nominated director, who did a film about a neo-Nazi who reconciled with one of his victims and we talked about what if we did a series,” he starts. “Of course, I’d spent twenty-five years in the criminal justice system as an advocate, as a lawyer, and I knew that there were people who were going into prison one way and who were transforming themselves into phenomenal people [despite their conditions]. [There are] diamonds behind those walls. I wanted some way to show that. I also know that we are in real danger in our culture and country of having the values of empathy, grace, and forgiveness, just leave the culture, which is very dangerous. I thought, if we could do a show that’s 180 degrees from the present fashion of ‘cancel culture’ and ‘call out culture’ and ‘I’m a block you culture’ and go 180 degrees the other direction [by] showing and redeeming the humanity of people on both sides of tragedy and tragic decisions that we might add a little bit of medicine back into I think a very sick culture.“
In light of this, Jones also argues that part of the reason we have lost our sense of grace towards one another stems from an internet culture that allows technology to filter the way we understand the world.
“Everybody can point fingers at each other but I do think that fundamentally we have an awful lot of data about each other now and very little wisdom,” he expounds. “These little devices that we have in our pocket, we think we’re programming our phones, our phones are really programming us. Once you click, click a few likes and swipes and share, that phone knows exactly who you are and what you like and they’re going to keep feeding you what you want to hear and what you want to see.”
“We think of these devices as information devices. They’re actually dopamine devices–that pleasure chemical in your brain. The algorithm is designed to give you pleasure through those pleasure sensors in your brain. So that’s why my Facebook feed looks totally different than yours but we don’t realize that. There a technology problem here that I think leads into a spiritual problem, which is that we can basically choose our own facts and, in so doing, choose our own feelings or lack thereof about people.”
Given the intensity of emotion surrounding this encounter between attacker and victim, one might wonder how they choose their subjects for each episode. According to Jones, the process is thorough so that they find interactions that may offer the best chance to make some progress together.
Says Jones, “That [process] is not an easy thing. We have eight cases of people who have done very bad things. Everything from impaired drivers, taking people’s lives, people who’ve committed homicide, people who shot others a decade or more ago. We have very trained facilitators in what’s a very rigorous process both in front of the camera and behind the scenes.”
“But you know what? More people than you would know who have committed very bad acts have learned and have grown ten [or] twenty years later and would love to be able to let the world know and certainly have to let the person that they hurt know that they are sorry and that they have tried to make amends. Many, many more people who are victims of crime and survivors of crime would like to know, first of all, what the heck were you doing and why did it happen in the first place? Have you learned anything? Are you sorry? Our court system is not designed for any of that… The restorative justice process allow for people to get more towards healing, sometimes just by getting more information. Even if they don’t forgive, just to get more information about what happened can be very helpful to people.”
Although we live in a world filled with reality television and ‘true crime’ docs, Jones believes that this show is something entirely unique that doesn’t fit into any of those now ‘traditional’ boxes.
“We don’t have the literacy or the language for grace and we don’t have the literacy and the language for what this show is trying to put on display,” he claims. “Is it a true crime thing? No, I, this is about the truth, long after the crime is over… There’s not a single word of this that is not an authentic expression coming from the mouths of people who are putting it all on the line to see if they can make some progress in the healing that comes after crime.”
Another one of the more distinct aspects to the show is the fact that these sorts of one-on-one confrontations are incredibly rare within the current justice system. While meetings between victim and offender are more common amongst felonies involving minors, the system simply isn’t set up for meetings between adult offenders.
“It is increasingly common for minor offenses involving minors but the more you’re dealing with a very, very serious crime or a very, very serious tragic decision that we’re talking about here, the less common that it is. In fact, we did the very first healing dialogue ever in the entire state of Alaska on our show. So, there are whole states that have never done this.”
As their subjects looks for ‘redemption’, Jones believes that the journey begins with the moral courage to humbly own what they have done and take responsibility for their actions.
“I think redemption looks differently in each situation,” he expounds “but I do think that the most important thing is for people who’ve done something wrong to own up to it, admit it, apologize and try to make amends, whether or not the other person accepts it or accept in the way they had hoped. It’s such an important thing that people do that. The moral courage that it takes to walk into a prison and sit down with the person who took the life of a loved one or the person who hurt you, that’s a level of moral courage that’s big. There’s also a level of moral courage that it takes to walk out of your prison cell, walk down the hall and sit down at a table, look in the eye of the person that you hurt or whose child you killed and answer their questions honestly to try to do something to help them move forward. So, I just saw Olympic levels of moral courage on both sides of these healing dialogues and they don’t all turn into big Kumbaya moments. Frankly, far from it. But there is some healing and some progress that takes place every time.“
What’s more, Jones also recognizes that, for many of their subjects, a key ingredient on their road to redemption is their ownership of faith that affects their life on a deep, personal level.
“Literally, nine out of ten of the people who were willing to do this have some deep faith practice,” credits Van. “I think that’s important. It’s not a religious show, but it’s not a show that tries to hide the religious feelings of the people who take these kinds of steps and I think that’s very important. We’ve secularized the culture so much that some of the wisdom in scripture that can really help people through these tough times has been pushed to the margins. And yet I think people been both in and out of prison who had gone through terrible things, they tend to reach for those scriptures and reach for those traditions and rely on them and that’s very present in the series.”
The Redemption Project with Van Jones begins its journey on CNN at 9pm on April 28th, 2019.
For full audio of our interview with Van Jones, click here.