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The denial of redemption

By Rich A . . . What exactly is redemption?  Many are familiar with the religious concept of redemption:  the payment of a price, or ransom, to secure release.  In criminology, redemption often is defined as the point in time when a person with a criminal record, having had no further contact with the criminal justice system, is of no greater risk of re-offending than a counterpart of the same age.

In a 2014 report, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) concisely summarized the idea of redemption:

The collateral consequences of conviction — specific legal restrictions, generalized discrimination and social stigma — have become more severe, more public and more permanent. These consequences affect virtually every aspect of human endeavor, including employment and licensing, housing, education, public benefits, credit and loans, immigration status, parental rights, interstate travel, and even volunteer opportunities. Collateral consequences can be a criminal defendant’s most serious punishment, permanently relegating a person to second-class status. The obsession with background checking in recent years has made it all but impossible for a person with a criminal record to leave the past behind. An arrest alone can lead to permanent loss of opportunity. The primary legal mechanisms historically relied on to restore rights and status — executive pardon and judicial expungement — have atrophied or become less effective. It is time to reverse this course. It is time to recognize that America’s infatuation with collateral consequences has produced unprecedented and unnecessary collateral damage to society and to the justice system. It is time to celebrate the magnificent human potential for growth and redemption. It is time to move from the era of collateral consequences to the era of restoration of rights and status. NACDL recommends a broad national initiative to construct a legal infrastructure that will provide individuals with a criminal record with a clear path to equal opportunity. The principle that individuals have paid their debt to society when they have completed their court-imposed sentence should guide this initiative. At its core, this initiative must recognize that individuals who pay their debt are entitled to have their legal and social status fully restored.

So, can an ex-offender truly be considered redeemed in the court of public opinion?  Well, let’s take a look and see if we can find an answer to this question.

Meet Shon Hopwood.  Mr. Hopwood’s remarkable story was highlighted on a 60 Minutes segment.  Mr. Hopwood was sentenced to 12 years for armed bank robbery.  He now is a law professor at Georgetown University.  Redeemed?  ✔

Next, meet Michelle Jones.  Ms. Jones’ laudable story was featured by the Marshall Project and the New York Times.  Ms. Jones was sentenced to 50 years for the murder of her child.  She now is a published scholar of American history and a Ph.D. candidate at New York University.  Redeemed?  ✔

Finally, meet Shaka Senghor.  Mr. Senghor’s triumphant story was heralded in the Detroit Free Press.  Mr. Senghor was sentenced to 17-40 years for second-degree murder related to a drug deal gone wrong.  He now is an accomplished author who was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey.  Redeemed?  ✔

Sounds like we have our answer, right?  Not so fast…  We need only to revisit some stories previously shared by NARSOL.

Meet Michael Cain.  Mr. Cain, a registered citizen, is a war veteran and double amputee.  Since his release from incarceration, Mr. Cain has been very involved with charity work, receiving numerous commendations.  He was scheduled to receive a mortgage-free home from a Texas non-profit group, Homes 4 Wounded Heroes, until the local newspaper uncovered that he was a registered citizen and reported that information to the non-profit group.  The offer for a free home quickly was rescinded.  Redeemed?  ✖

Next, meet Stuart Yates.  Mr. Yates, a registered citizen, had the audacity to believe that he had the right to visit his terminally-ill son at a Wisconsin children’s hospital, until he was escorted from the premises by hospital personnel who had discovered his registry status.  Mr. Yates had to file suit against the hospital in order to restore his right to visit his son.  Redeemed?  ✖

Think to yourself:  How many times have you heard someone say of an ex-offender “He has really turned his life around” or “He really is on a straight-and-narrow path now”?  If you are like me, you hear these accolades mentioned for all types of offenses, except for sex offenses.  We saw an example above with Ms. Jones, who was convicted of the murder of her own child, a crime that is relegated as one of the most egregious within our collective ethos.  Ms. Jones was afforded public recognition for her redemption, and her reputation was restored in terms of societal value.  But, the story of Mr. Cain, whose charity resume` suggests that his societal capital is just as founded as that of Ms. Jones, elicited the opposite response. It seems that the public’s acknowledgment of redemption comes with qualifications — all are redeemable, except for registered citizens.

One of the sources of this asymmetry is, as we know, the continued dissemination of misinformation.  We all know that this is a battle that lends itself to almost daily scrutiny on our behalf (recall the recent, annual Halloween barrage, for example).  Today, I was surprised to discover blatant misinformation being used by an organization which should be a champion of redemption, United Methodist Church. I found this in their official policy regarding registered citizens seeking to attend their church services. Although the policy does not explicitly advise the churches to deny registered citizens, it does read as follows:  “Recent studies suggest a low likelihood that pedophiles can or will change. Without extensive professional treatment, virtually all child sexual offenders will re-offend. Repentance, prayer, and pastoral support, always in combination with lifelong professional treatment, can be crucial in helping to change behavior but, in themselves, offer slim hope of changing the behavior of perpetrators.” When religious organizations perpetuate myths — not only that pedophiles are unlikely not to offend but that pedophiles and child molesters are one in the same — this gives credence to the public’s misconception that reform is not possible for registered citizens.

Additionally, the confinements of the employment sphere feed public perception as well. Many pre-employment background checks are limited to a search of criminal records within the last seven years only.  This allows the majority of ex-offenders with felony convictions to have a “clean” record for employment purposes within seven years. However, most of these background checks also include a check of the SOR. As such, registered citizens go for years, and some for life, without the chance to pursue employment opportunities with the “clean slate” that is afforded to others who have gone the same length of time without re-offending. This barrier-to-employment can cause financial and housing difficulties for registered citizens as well as constraining them to classification as “second-class citizens” in the eyes of employers and the public.

Lastly, compounding the shaming factor of the SOR itself, the proximity- and residency-restriction laws further stigmatize registered citizens in the public’s eye by rendering them “too dangerous” to be in public without some type of control. How can the public view registered citizens as redeemed when the law itself says that they are still “too dangerous” to be allowed near schools, parks, swimming pools, etc.?  It is a contradictory message that cannot withstand the rationalization process needed for the public to consider registered citizens redeemed.

Rory Fleming of Foglight Strategies has an insightful piece titled “Why Can’t We Redeem the Sex Offender?” that, unfortunately, summarizes this dilemma in a single sentence: “Sadly, the stigma against sex offenders means that we have created a huge population of people with skills to benefit humanity whose lives and mainstream contributions are seen as forfeit.”

Until we are able to overcome this paradigm by combating misinformation; advocating for more rational, fact-based legislation; and increasing public awareness, registered citizens, regardless of their proven rehabilitation and personal societal contribution, will continue, by default, to be:  Redeemed?  ✖

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Rich is one of NARSOL's dedicated advocates in the state of Virginia and a very talented writer.