Inspiring work of Indian-American wins her MacArthur ‘Genius’ grant

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An Indian-American is among the 26 individuals to receive the highly prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship, more popularly named the MacArthur Genius grant.

Sujatha Baliga, an attorney from Oakland, California, is a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s fellowship more popularly called the ‘Genius’ grant, for 2019. (Photo: macfound.org)

Sujatha Baliga, an attorney in Oakland, California is one of the lucky recipients of the five-year $625,000 award that comes with no strings attached.

Baliga is a  restorative justice practitioner and director of the Restorative Justice Project that she initiated in Alameda, California. Her work attempts to demonstrate that survivor-centered restorative justice alternatives are more effective rather than the traditional legal interventions as a means of helping crime survivors to heal.

“Restorative justice inspires me because I get to see families and communities achieve safety, accountability, and healing through dialogue,” says Baliga who suffered sexual abuse from a family member as a child. “It helps me create what I needed when I was a child,” she says.

Baliga also develops and facilitates restorative justice responses to address needs of survivors of intimate partner and sexual violence. “As a survivor of child sexual abuse, she powerfully articulates how punitive systems of criminal justice often fail to offer sufficient familial support and pathways to healing for survivors and frequently have silencing and shaming effects that prolong their suffering,” MacArthur says.

That is what Baliga says. “As a child sexual abuse survivor growing up in an immigrant family, I was more afraid of ‘help’ than I was of my father. 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.”

Baliga goes on to say, “As an adult, I became a victim advocate, and then a public defender, but I was never satisfied with legal outcomes that framed success as beating the other ‘side.’ Ultimately, I was drawn to restorative justice because it works best without involving the criminal legal system or other systems of separation and oppression.”

The Indian-American attorney’s team provides training and technical assistance to similar programs in multiple counties and states that operate in collaboration with community-based organizations and partners from the criminal and juvenile legal systems. They also collect and evaluate data on rates of recidivism reduction and crime survivor satisfaction from each site to further improve existing programs.

According to MacArthur Foundation, Baliga’s  efforts to reduce the juvenile legal system’s reliance on incarceration “hold promise for diminishing its highly disproportionate and detrimental effects on communities of color,” and goes further to note that, “Baliga is increasing the availability of restorative justice alternatives for young people in cities across the United States.”

A 1993 graduate from Harvard University, Baliga has a JD (1999) from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Since 2015, she has served as director of the Restorative Justice Project at Impact Justice, where she is also a Just Beginnings Collaborative Fellow. She is a co-founder of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, was a Soros Justice Fellow at Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (2008), and has worked previously as a public defender and victim advocate in New Mexico and New York.

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