By John Hanlon
“I’ve spent half my life working with the criminal justice system and I’ve seen lives devastated by violence,” says Van Jones in the introduction of his new CNN program. Entitled The Redemption Project with Van Jones, the documentary series focuses on the pain and potential of victim-offender dialogues.
A victim-offender dialogue occurs in this show when the relative of a slain victim (or the surviving victim of an attack) meets with one of the people responsible for the crime. In the first episode, for instance, a woman whose mother was murdered when she was only fifteen months old meets with the man responsible for that death.
Before the meeting occurs, Van Jones interviews both parties (learning more about their lives and perspectives) and others — such as advocates, prison officials and facilitators — who plan to attend the dialogue. These discussions lead up to the dialogue itself, which features the victims and perpetrators talking to one another in an open setting.
While other documentary programs focus on brutal crimes and the immediate aftermath of them, this one focuses on the long-term impact of those crimes on families, victims and the assailants themselves.
Van Jones, who has oftentimes advocated for discourse in the political realm, serves as the host here. The conversations he’s supporting here are more complicated than ones between people of different ideologies and he understands that. He gives both the victims and the assailants the opportunity to speak out, letting them both freely voice their own unique perspectives. Van Jones doesn’t shy away from the horrific nature of the crimes themselves but he doesn’t dwell on them either. The show is more interested in moving the conversation forward.
In the five episodes that were available for review, the nonfiction series captures moments of connection between victims and criminals. In the first episode, the victim’s daughter willingly talks about the road to forgiveness, her faith and her own children. “I try to raise my kids the way that I wanted to be raised,” she says.
During the dialogue itself, she raises questions about her mother’s last words. The offender’s discomfort is undeniable (and well-deserved) but he’s open to starting the conversation and willing to share the information he has along with a seemingly heartfelt apology.
There are big emotional moments here but the show never strives to sensationalize them. Instead, it naturally follows the direction of its subjects. Most of the conversations stem from the needs and desires of the two main parties in the conversation.
Van Jones even shies away from the intensity of the dialogue itself. He watches the meeting unfold in another room. That decision makes the meetings feel more intimate, real and raw.
It’s undeniably hard to watch some of these scenes unfold but that’s how it’s meant to be. Some of the offenders walk into the room hoping for forgiveness. Others walk in hoping to resolve some unanswered questions for the victim’s family. Other walk in, not knowing what might happen. But these meetings are remarkable regardless of the expectations.
The subject of the Redemption Project is difficult to fathom. Many families would rather shy away from engaging with the people that caused them such heartbreak (and some of the victim’s family members here talk about people attempting to dissuade them from participating in this process). However, the people that do participate here give this show about redemption an authentic, raw and undeniably inspiring power.
The Redemption Project with Van Jones airs Sunday nights on CNN.