She said justifying the release of prisoners because they are "sick and dying" should have little to do with compassion. "It has to be consistent with the reasons for imprisoning them in the first place," she told ABCNews.com.
If Atkins was jailed to keep society safe, she might be justifiably released if "she has completely transformed herself and demonstrated she was not a threat to the community," Rhodes said.
"If one reason for punishment is to address the feeling of eye for an eye, that's not a good justification," she said. "More important is the justification that it protects from people doing it again."
Citing the Lockerbie bomber, she said, "If he is not in jail very long, you haven't achieved that goal. Also, if he is able to interact with his family and give encouragement to do things, he might still be dangerous -- or if he has symbolic value to his followers.
"For somebody [like al-Megrahi] who plans the murder of so many victims, it's hard for me to have that lump in the throat and let go," Rhodes said.
But Grace Christ, a professor of social work at Columbia University in New York City, who has counseled the families of the firefighters who perished in the World Trade Center on 9/11, sees forgiveness differently.
"At first, they were very angry with the people they felt were responsible, and felt vindicated by the war and efforts to bring some of these people to justice," she told ABCNews.com.
"But, later, they really surprised us at how they really were not interested in getting revenge. They struggled with it, but it passed and they focused on maintaining their responsibility as parents and finding a way through it, looking forward."
The word "forgiveness" was never used in surveys of these families -- "that would have been provocative," Christ said. But as seen in the cultural acceptance of no-fault insurance and no-fault divorce, people are more willing to "seek reconciliation" rather than hold on to feelings of antagonism.
"I think we've learned a lot as society," she said. "We can lose our animosities. I think people are realizing it's much healthier."
Martha Alderman Boyer of Marietta, N.Y., lost her sister, Paula Bouckley and brother-in-law Glenn Bouckley, in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.
"I've gotten past being angry," she told ABCNews.com. "Certainly nobody will be forgotten, but I'm not angry. I can't say I'm angry."
"It's pointless, it just eats you up inside and makes you miserable," Boyer said. "What's the point? There is good that has come out of this, in many tragedies there is good that comes out of it."