Can ex-offenders redeem themselves?

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?



Filed under background checks, employer tax credits, employment ex-offenders, starting over

7 responses to “Can ex-offenders redeem themselves?

  1. Yes, indeed, we can redeem ourselves. What we can’t do is control the way other people think about us. We must keep a “big picture” perspective about the reentry process. Remember that it is a process, not an event. Belief in ourselves, over the long haul, will have an ameliorative effect upon much of the skepticism, ostracism, and indifference we inevitably encounter. Let our attitude and our actions give the lie to negative expectations and connotations. Find redemption within, first and foremost. Then remain diligent in living and learning and working to carve a place that nurtures and sustains. It is, truly, the work of our lives.

    • Very well put, James. It is changing your own mindset and behavior that is important. And so true about reentry being a process not an event. I’m going to have to steal that line 😉

  2. I agree that it is going to get better in the future but today we, as ex-offenders face many problem areas and the most difficult being employment. I have been searching for long term work for 6 months now with no luck at all but,,, I do have a lot of friends out there that are in my corner and working to assist me and that is worth more than I can measure.

    I have hope and in this I believe lies my future so when those of you fell down and out and the world looks closed off to you just call a friend and try to smile….. Tomorrow is right around the corner.

    • Hi Bill,

      So sorry you’re still struggling on the job front, but it’s great to hear you have so much support, not to mention the right attitude. That’s good counsel to call a friend when things get tough — I wish more of my students did that.

      I know six months seems like forever, but in this job market, finding a job is taking everyone longer — you might even be under the average.

      So good luck, and please keep me posted on how things go for you. Thanks again for writing.

  3. Christine

    Everyone deserves a second chance to make a new start, otherwise life has no real meaning and religion is all hypocracy.

    Good luck to all those who want to turn their lives around and make a new start, hope you meet people who’ll give you that chance.

  4. Pingback: On second chances… « Out and Employed

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