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November 21, 2014

Do Law-Breakers Deserve a Second Chance?



Everything that happens to us has the propensity to teach us something if we are willing to heed the lesson.  If we view failures as opportunities to grow, resilience is born from those experiences and we become stronger.  Hopefully we are wise enough to not repeat the same mistakes again.  

Alas, many of us do repeat mistakes and we find ourselves reliving the same reality as we move through our lives.  These patterns of behavior can be difficult to break because we are creatures of habit and we tend to live out what we know.  It is the same reason we continue to battle our own demons over and over.  If we are lucky, our loved ones continue to forgive us and we forgive ourselves.

That same pattern of behavior also correlates to recidivism rates for offenders.  We want to believe that our criminal justice system is one where a person can serve their time and then assimilate back into society after having paid their debt.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way at all.  May repeat offenders continue their pattern of crime because we don’t allow them seamless entry back into the free world.  But surely I cannot compare those who break the law with the rest of us law abiding citizens.  

We have a tendency to judge others so harshly by their transgressions because they sin differently than us.  In other words, we attach value to wrongdoing by ranking it.  Violent crimes rank high on the list but as we move down in descending order, I’m certain we’ll find our own bad behavior.  We rationalize the bad things we do but have no problem condemning others.  

We draw a line in the sand between breaking the law and crimes of morality but the reality is, they are all just different degrees of bad behavior.

I recently was part of a panel discussion in Chicago sponsored by the Illinois Justice Project where smart and caring people came together to collaborate on “reentry”.  That is, prisoners who are released from jail and transitioning back into society.

It turns out, we don’t make it very easy for them.  Now, I can hear the voices of the contrarians declare that it shouldn’t be easy.  After all, they are criminals.  The universal paradox is that we are free to choose but we are not free from the consequences of our choice.

But what about those who have paid their penance and wish to live honorably thereafter.  The truth is, they have trouble finding people who will give them a chance.  If I were a business owner and someone with a felony burglary record applied to work for me, I can tell you I would have trepidation about hiring them.  After all, past behavior is typically indicative of future behavior so why on earth would I put my livelihood at risk when I could hire someone with no criminal background?   Therein lies the problem.

Those who break the law, serve their time, and wish to assimilate often resort to committing crimes once again because no one will give them a chance to succeed.  When you factor in societal circumstances that were more than likely to contribute to the delinquent behavior, there is seemingly no way out for a person who genuinely wishes to reform themselves.

If you were lucky enough to be born into an existence where food, shelter, affection and boundaries were prevalent, chances are you turned out okay.  Those who weren’t so fortunate have to unlearn what they have been taught.  There must be a pattern interruption for them so they can see that there is another alternative.

People are going to continue to fall from grace.  But after atonement, it is in the best interest of all of us that we commit to finding ways to reform offenders so they can be productive members of our society.  

Who among us hasn’t benefitted from a second chance?
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