This time of year we hear a lot about redemption. For Christians, Good Friday and Easter offer the reminder that even one of the criminals condemned to die with Jesus expressed sorrow for what he did and was saved. Jews celebrate Passover, in remembrance of how God delivered them to freedom out of Egypt, but also to recognize the ability we all have to “pass over” our weaknesses. Virtually every religion, as well as myths, our favorite stories and even modern movies, allude to the the belief that people can atone for the bad things they’ve done and find a new life. As University of Toronto Professor Mamoud M. Ayoub puts it : ” everywhere we go there is this idea of life coming out of death, so to say, healing the world, healing nature after a period of sickness or cessation.”
And yet as a society and as individuals we remain suspicious of the concept. Many employers routinely screen out anyone with a criminal record from consideration for a job. At the same time, many ex-offenders who yearn to start over are afraid it won’t happen. A woman I worked with – who is due to spend several years in a state penitentiary – talked about her fear that even once she’s out, she’ll be marked and never move past it. “I feel like the cops we’ll be just waiting for me to screw up,” she said. A lot of her classmates echoed this sentiment.
I can understand the reasoning…still, I think both employers and ex-offenders have to work to get beyond it. Yes, when you’re locked up and at the mercy of guards whose job it is to call you on the slightest infraction, it can be difficult to imagine you’ll ever regain a sense of control over your life. But you can and you will. Part of the reentry process is dealing with these uncomfortable feelings. You’ve got to realize that since you have a record, authorities will come down on you harder if you step out of line — but your actions are up to you. You don’t have to repeat old patterns and you can move on.
The employment issue is trickier. Employers don’t want problems, they want guarantees that employees won’t screw up and cost them money. Unfortunately, there are none. Incentives, such as providing commercial liability insurance to employers (on top of the federal bonding which protects against theft), as blogger James Reiner suggests, would be a good start. There are also efforts underway to measure the point at which an ex-offender who hasn’t committed another crime is no bigger risk than any other individual. Alfred Blumstein and Kiminori Nakamura at Carnegie Mellon University are conducting ongoing research on “redemption times,” for certain types of felony convictions. The hope is this could be useful in enhancing employment opportunities for ex-offenders. They found, for example, that for an individual in their study who committed robbery at age 18, it would take 7.7 years until he or she was no more likely to commit a crime than an individual without a record. For burglary it was 3.8 years, while for aggravated assault it was 4.3. Meanwhile, Shawn Bushway, an associate professor of criminal justice at The University of Albany SUNY is looking at ways to determine the difference between breaks in criminal activity and complete cessation from crime.
It will be interesting to see where any empirical evidence from this research takes us. Is society ready to believe that after a certain time, a record shouldn’t matter? Can ex-offenders in the U.S. truly redeem themselves? Anybody out there have any thoughts or experiences to share?