Thursday, August 23, 2007

Poking Vick with a Stick, Forever


How did our seesaw of society slide to schadenfreude? Newspaper editorials, op-eds and letters, as well as many blogs and speakers at public hearings, want Hell for the living.

Only the most recent example is Michael Vick. He pleaded guilty to offenses related to holding and funding dog fights, murdering dogs. The actual plea was for conspiring to travel in interstate commerce in aid of unlawful activities and to sponsor a dog in an animal fighting venture. That reduced vicious, prolonged brutality to its federal violations. It does not include the possible Virginia animal cruelty charges that in theory could mean decades in jail (but likely won't).

Short of a few blood-sport loonies (and one confused NBA star), everyone acknowledges Vick is a criminal who deserves punishment. Yet what is astonishing includes:
  • Despite his being sure to lose his quarterback job with $130 million income, plus hundreds of millions of endorsements, that does not begin to be enough for many of us.
  • Despite his likely going to prison for 18 months to two years and losing his abilities that make him a top athlete, that does not begin to be enough for many of us.
A startling percentage of us seem to demand perpetual punishment for him, as we do for most convicted criminals. Surely if the vengeance crowd had compassion, they lost it. If they learned the concepts of paying the price, rehabilitation and second chances, they lost those.

Unpayable Debts

This allegedly is a nation of second chances, despite F. Scott Fitzgerald's melodramatic statement that "There are no second acts in American lives." Yet in the past few decades we have turned on those who need another shot the most. Our laws pretend to be reasonable and rational.

The theory is that if you are caught and convicted of (or plead guilty to) a serious crime, you pay in prison time or fines or both. Then you are supposed to live lawfully and contribute to society in taxes and otherwise.

In the large part, we are not very good at rehab. Felons don't come out of prison with new licit skills, rather with bitterness and knowledge of other criminal activities. Yet even with our warehousing mentality — and the highest percentage of our citizens in jail of any first-world country — some convicts emerge chastened and legit.

What we are seeing and doing now though shows widespread eagerness to provide non-stop and permanent punishment. Imagine if the public stocks from the Puritan times were perpetual. You are humiliated daily and forever for your sins against society. That would elevate punishment to Promethean levels, with that bird of prey eating your liver and returning to do the same with the regenerated one.

How is it that we decided that there is no way to pay a debt to society with prison time?

Worst Cases

An understandable wedge that may have contributed is child molesters and other sexual predators. We have sex-offender registries, laws and regulations on where they can live and travel, electronic anklets, and other tools to help assure the public that we are always watching them. Of course, this accepts that these people are crazy and incurable and presumes that such crazies will not act if they think the police are watching. We have many re-offender examples to disprove the latter.

The case of sex offenders illustrates the conundrum clearly, the issue that pertains to most convicted felons. The ideal is that being sent to prison is not for additional punishment, rather is the punishment, the loss of freedom, which allegedly is the great American driving force. The other part of that is while incarcerated, the prisoners get their heads on straight, receive therapeutic counseling and if they are there long enough, additional education to ensure that they emerge stable and productive. In those situations, the revitalized and wiser former criminal pays the social debt and returns to join us. We of course show compassion and welcome these citizens.

Back to sex offenders, we can't seem to re-pattern them. They go into prison with uncontrollable illegal lusts and come out with the same. We then look at various options:
  1. Change the laws to permit keeping them in jail or psychiatric hospitalization forever, and do so.
  2. Expect them to re-offend, monitor them until they slip up, and in effect do the first option. Repeat as necessary.
  3. Dog them day and night, protest in front of their homes, demand that they be tossed from their jobs and living arrangements, and make them suffer until they end up back in prison or kill themselves violently or with drugs.
  4. Devote many millions to researching behavioral or pharmaceutical cures, which is likely expensive and years away, and may even be impossible in some cases.
None of those is a great choice. Only the last one approaches the ideal of the justice system at all.

Starting Fresh

I am a baby boomer and I grew up with the ideals that our WWII parents preached. One of those ideals that recurred frequently in literature, TV and movies was paying your debt to society. In the story, there often were small-minded and unfair folk who wanted to harry the ex-con just trying to make his way. Usually a hero found support in the majority of citizens with the message of that debt has been paid.

There are other, older tales in which taking the allegedly reserved authority of a God for vengeance continues. I think of Les Misérables, even though Jean Valjean only sort of paid his debt. Five years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family and 14 years for escapes, he violated parole by not carrying his yellow ex-con ticket and telling everyone who he was. Even after a decade of exemplary life, Valjean remained the target of a relentless Inspector Javert. Author Victor Hugo makes his political statement and has his jest at justice with the ending. After Valjean saves Javert among others, the inspector kills himself when he realizes he can't stand to take Valjean in again. The vengeance monster must be fed!

How did we get to a point as nation that so many of us in the public and media can say that all former prisons deserve non-stop punishment? How did so many of us come to excuse contributing to others' suffering as a virtue and necessity?

Far too many of us seem to relish the Code of Hammurabi and the fearful vengeance of the Old Testament God. We also want to control the forces of retribution.

In a very real sense, that kind of blood lust and viciousness are far too similar to Michael Vick's crimes. A major difference is that those who cannot permit reentry into society demand continuous and continual punishment, a painful life and a long discomfort leading to a slow death.

As a good example, the leadership of the Atlanta NAACP is much more New Testament about the Vick situation. In an AP story, they agree that his deeds deserve punishment and that he has to pay his debt. However, Chapter President R.L. White said, "As a society, we should aid in his rehabilitation and welcome a new Michael Vick back into the community without a permanent loss of his career in football."

There's a balance that we can all strike. Whether it's stealing, hurting someone, or cruelly using dogs for fatal sport and profit, there are penalties for those caught and convicted. When we do not honor that, we presume to take the authority of the lawmakers, police, judges and even any God we might follow.

Who are we to do that?

A felon like Vick needs prison time. In this case, he is certain to lose more than nearly any of us could ever acquire, in reputation, money, status, relationships and almost anything else we can catalog. As with other convicted criminals, he needs a fair shake when he leaves prison.

I don't know that we have the will and compassion to pursue real rehabilitation for prisoners. We certainly should find better ways to reduce the number and percentage of Americans sent to jail. What we are doing doesn't work before, during or after prison.

Meanwhile, we have a justice system in place with penalties for offenses. The public stocks are literally gone from our towns' commons. Let us not figuratively restore them.

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