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Saturday, July 21, 2012

The "Bad People" -- All Safe and Dead

"People 'die' all the time. ... Parts of them die when they make the wrong kinds of decisions-decisions against life. Sometimes they die bit by bit until finally they are just living corpses walking around. If you are perceptive you can see it in their eyes; the fire has gone out ... you always know when you make a decision against life. ... The door clicks and you are safe inside- safe and dead."

-Anne Morrow Lindbergh, American author and aviator

I took some liberty changing tense in this Anne Lindbergh quote. I felt it spoke to me about the decisions we all make in our lives and, particularly, the impact of making bad decisions. I have never understood the workings of fate and the interplay of human will that lead to certain outcomes. In fact, some who make what Lindbergh calls "decisions against life" are able to recover and overcome their poor choices while others find it impossible, no matter how hard they try, to escape the door that seals their fate and their eventual demise.

I honestly don't believe inherent depravity or unyielding weakness of character leads all of us into the room of the "safe and dead." To me, we all could make one ill-chosen decision at a particularly vulnerable moment that might change our course of good intentions. For whatever reason, once on such a life-robbing path, we could prefer to traverse it unconsciously to its end.

I believe lack of love can overpower any good intention. Although we all tire of hearing how unfortunate circumstances and horrible environments lead people to make poor decisions, we, the fortunate recipients of grace and love, are quick to judge others. We really care little about “how” whom we judge as the “Bad People” deal with hatred, loneliness, or abuse. On the other hand, we extend overwhelming sympathy to those we deem innocent and worthy of our attention.

Too often we seek revenge upon wrongdoers and believe they are forever unworthy of our trust. We allow little, if any, chance for the Bad People to have new beginnings. In fact, I believe many of us merely wish to discard these troublesome miscreants and enjoy what we perceive as a "cleaner" environment without them.

Just for a moment imagine yourself imprisoned in a life created by your own bad decisions. Why would you even want to leave your confines to fit into a world that holds no trust in you and no comfort for your presence? Even if you wanted to re-enter the real world, how would you exist? You would need to find good friends, a job, and a place to survive for the remainder of your lonely existence. Once you make yourself one of the Bad People by making bad decisions, you carry that deep brand of shame with you everywhere you go. You become unwanted refuse – breathing, walking trash.

Who Should Have Redemption?

Christians believe Christ's blood, or life, which he surrendered for them, is the “ransom” by which the deliverance of his people from the servitude of sin and from its penal consequences is secured. It is the plain doctrine of Scripture that "Christ saves us neither by the mere exercise of power, nor by his doctrine, nor by his example, nor by the moral influence which he exerted, nor by any subjective influence on his people, whether natural or mystical, but as a satisfaction to divine justice, as an expiation for sin, and as a ransom from the curse and authority of the law, thus reconciling us to God by making it consistent with his perfection to exercise mercy toward sinners" (Hodge, Systematic Theology)
Many people are unfairly denied employment and other opportunities because of a very old criminal record. Today, this problem is very troublesome. An article published in the journal Pediatrics shows how the arrest rate has grown — by age 23, 30 percent of Americans have been arrested, compared with 22 percent in 1967. The increase reflects in part the considerable growth in arrests for drug offenses and domestic violence.

The existence of criminal-background checks and the efficiency of information technology in maintaining those records and making them widely available, have meant that millions of Americans — even those who served probation or parole but were never incarcerated — continue to pay a price long after their crime.

In November 2011, the American Bar Association released a database identifying more than 38,000 punitive provisions that apply to people convicted of crimes, pertaining to everything from public housing to welfare assistance to occupational licenses. More than two-thirds of the states allow hiring and professional-licensing decisions to be made on the basis of an arrest alone.

What does research have to say about redemption?

One study used criminal record checks to predict future unwanted behaviors. A central question these decision makers face is how much time it takes before offenders can be considered “redeemed” and resemble non-offenders in terms of the probability of offending.

Building on a small literature addressing this topic for youthful, first-time offenders, the research found that young novice offenders are redeemed after approximately 10 years of remaining crime free. For older offenders, the redemption period is considerably shorter. Offenders with extensive criminal histories, however, either never resemble their non-convicted counterparts or only do so after a crime-free period of more than 20 years. (Shawn D. Bushway et al., “The Predictive Value of Criminal Background Checks: Do Age and Criminal History Affect Time To Redemption?” Criminology Volume 49, February 2011)

Another study of redemption research by Kiminori Nakamura based on first-time arrestees found that after five to eight years of staying clean from drugs and alcohol, an individual with a prior conviction is of no greater risk of committing another crime than other individuals of the same age. ( Kiminori Nakamura, “Redemption Research: Kiminori Nakamura,” January 19 2012)

My Bottom Line

People must have opportunities for redemption. We must aid in creating these opportunities. This is not to say that people who make bad decisions and break the law should not pay for their crimes. However, much of American society has been conditioned with very slanted opinions about who should pay the steepest price for wrongdoings. Celebrity and money influence the views of the public and the courts when it comes to paying for doing wrong. In the eyes of the public, both seem to give people free-redemption status.

True, most people want criminals to receive their “just rewards.” I believe this too. But, usually it's the poor who pay most for their mistakes. And, we tend to become callous to these Bad People.

Consider the plight of the poor concerning arrest. The poor are more visible to the police, as well as to other citizens who may complain to law officials: They can't afford offices or similar places to hide. Also, biases in police training and experience may cause police officers to blindly blame crimes on certain groups, such as people of color and lower-class juveniles. Finally, the fear of political pressure and “hassles” may prompt law enforcement officers to avoid arresting more affluent and influential members of society.

Once arrested, the poor pay more. Poor people typically cannot post bail, so they must wait in jail for their trial. Hence, they are unable to actively work in their own defense. Moreover, when the time for the trial comes, defendants who are not out on bail look guilty because they must enter the courtroom led by police—probably influencing judges and juries. Social research even indicates that defendants who pay their bail are more likely to be acquitted than those who do not.

Even though the United States entitles all defendants to legal counsel, the quality of this assistance varies. Poor people receive court-appointed lawyers, who may receive lower wages and have a heavy caseload.

Why do the poor pay more during criminal sentencing? The poor generally receive tougher penalties and longer prison terms than do the more affluent convicted of the same crimes. The race of the victims plays a role in the harshness of sentencing as well. Regardless of the murderer's race, those murdering whites are more likely to receive the death sentence than those killing minorities.

Prisons ideally should deter crimes but the research remains very cloudy about the effectiveness of the prison system to do so. Prisons do isolate criminals from the general public, but, ideally, prisons should rehabilitate criminals into productive citizens who no longer commit crimes. In truth, about 50% of these individuals will repeatedly return to the prison system.

Many studies show that up to 50 percent of recent parolees become homeless at some point after being released from prison. By lifting many of the bans that prevent individuals with drug felony convictions from being able to apply for government help with housing or food, states can help ensure that ex-prisoners have a safe place to live.

Without a physical address, looking for a stable job can be impossible, which can compound the problem for many parolees. Programs that help ensure parolees have a stable place to live after leaving prison can help prisoners build a more successful life after leaving prison.

Many of you are probably now thinking, “What's the use? Helping these Bad People will take lots of money and other resources. These folks cannot take control of their own lives, so they don't deserve redemption.” But, please, consider again how one or two bad decisions can essentially insure that a person will be imprisoned for life – either behind metal bars or in the “safe and dead” room to which Anne Morrow Lindbergh refers.

If America is still a Christian nation, citizens must exercise mercy towards sinners. Shouldn't they do this on earth as they live by their beliefs? Aren't we all sinners anyway? Is the magnitude of your sins less than that of an addict or a thief? In the end, God is the judge. But, too many of us judge others and contribute to their earthly stays in hell by ignoring the real solutions. Too many want all Bad People to pay dearly. Hatred and revenge are instruments of evil. Forgiveness, recovery, and love can help make a saint of any person, regardless of his or her past mistakes. My hope is that everyone has an opportunity to make a difference in the life of another sinner. Recovery, sweet recovery.

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