Forgiveness vs. protecting Society

Inspired by two other threads in GD. One on forgiveness in general and the one about the child molestor being released on a technicality.
If we accept that forgiveness is a positive thing for us as individuals and a culture. Where is the line drawn between forgiveness and certain heinous crimes.
There’s a thread about a repeat child offendor being released early. Here in TN a man who years ago beat his wife to death with a skillet was released after six years in prison. He recently killed his new wife, their infant , and her daughter by a previouos marrige.
Where is the balance between our moral obligation to protect society form repeat offendors and our moral obligation to try and reform criminals and offer them a second chance?

Should people who comit certain crimes not get a second chance?

Are there more civilized options than our current prison system?

DOesn’t protecting the innocent take precedent over offering a second chance?

Are there other importent points I haven’t thought of?

Unless a released offender has a legitimate chance at re-joining society, you’re virtually guaranteeing a return to crime.

I think our prison system is a dismal failure at any rehibilitation. I believe in offering people a second chance. What would you say constitues a legitimate chance?

What about the three strike rule. Does it help?

What about the other questions?

IMO, Premeditated murder and sexual assult don’t deserve a second chance. These are the two big ones that come to mind. This should be taught by both parents and teachers early in life. You do these crimes, you’ll suffer bad times.

I feel that rehabilitation for drug users and non-violent crimes would be more appropriate then imprisonment. Those who commit violent crimes involving weapons and physical harm lack self control. I don’t know what to do with these people to be honest. Give them their own State with large walls maybe?

I feel that it is.

You are right.

Correction’s hands are tied when it comes to rehabilitation by several factors:

  1. You can lead a horse to water . . . . Only inmates who want to change will do so, no matter how good the programming is.

  2. Prisons do not have the manpower or budgets to do effective programming. Right now, in many prisons, programs are run by over-worked staff members who are using a “teacher’s guide” to run the programs while the inmates fill out workbooks and have group counselling. The staff member may have had only minimal training-- if any-- in psychology or counselling.

  3. People want their politicians to pound the podium and yell about being tough on crime but they don’t want to pay more taxes for it. The cost for truly effective rehabilitative programming would be astronomical. (Many inmates require intensive one-on-one counselling. Some need almost complete social reprogramming. Some genuinely cannot understand why they shouldn’t hurt other people. They were never taught empathy.) People seem to have a “lock 'em up and forget 'em” attitude-- meaning that they resent paying taxes for anything beyond the minimum needs of inmates.

  4. No amount of programming will remove the legitimate social issues which contribute to crime and make it extraordinarily difficult for ex-cons to avoid re-offending.

  5. The length of time of incarceration doesn’t often allow for programming time. In the prison in which my husband works, the average sentance is less than nine months, and there are waiting lists for programs.

Ex-inmates need to truly become part of the community, meaning contributing to society as a productive citizen. Do I think that it’s possible? In most cases, no.

  1. First, you have to consider to where the ex-inmate is returning. Are his family members and friends criminals? Are there jobs in the community?

  2. Did the inmate get any vocational training on the inside, or further his education? Even if he did, he’s up against a lot of difficulties in finding a job which would actually support his family. Most likely, he’ll end up doing menial labor for dirt pay with little or no chance for advancement. Earning money quickly with a minimum of labor in a criminal persuit can seem mighty attractive to a person facing this. No one wants to hire an ex-con, and in this labor market his chances are even slimmer.

  3. How are his social skills? Does he know how to express himself politely? Is he missing teeth, or does he have visible tattoos?

  4. What was his crime? Some things follow a person forever. A kid who stole a car for a joyride might find an employer who will shrug it off with “kids will be kids”, but a rapist or someone who stole from an employer is a pariah.

My point was that inmates leaving prison face tough odds, and our society’s reaction to them makes staying “straight” that much more difficult. Some of these guys have a deep mistrust of “the system”, and to be discriminated against because of their record and rejected repeatedly when they try to do the right thing only adds to that hostility. An antisocial attitude is a big contributor to criminal behavior. They may have been inspired on the inside by programming or counselling to try to be a good citizen, but repeated rejection and feeling like society’s trash can wear out any good intentions.

However, I don’t think there’s a way to change it. This is one of those social problems that cannot be fixed. Like poverty, it’s a problem which will remain with us despite our best intentions.

Since society’s attitude cannot be changed, I think that the states should invest in work programs for ex-inmates which would pay a decent wage, including transportation and child care. Working on the outside for several years without getting into trouble would help ease their transition into society, allowing time for the “stink” of the status of ex-inmate to dissipate.

However, this won’t happen. It’d be too expensive, and people really just don’t care enough, or hold opinions which blame the ex-inmate for being lazy or think that they should never be let out in the first place. (Ignoring, of course, the crucial role that plea-bargaining plays in our justice system.)

No. (I personally feel that three-strikes laws are Unconstitutional, but that’s for the courts to decide.)

I think that for non-violent drug offenses, community probation would be much more effective and reasonable. I think we waste a tremendous amount of money on trying to punish away a social sickness-- about as effective as beating a fever out of a child. There are other minor crimes which I think could be more properly dealt with using community policing and restitution rather than prison time.

However, our current system is about as civilized as we can make it without changes to which the public would be hostile and resistant. No politician wants to appear “soft on crime”.

As for your second question, there is no way to fully “protect the innocent.” Our system is fundamentally reactionary, which means we can only deal with the aftermath of a crime. There is little we can do to prevent crime in the first place without trimming the Constitution a bit.

My husband, in his time working for corrections, has had to release inmates which he would swear that he knows will re-offend. But there is nothing he can do. Our system is set up that once you do your time, you’re out. We cannot add extra time because we feel (or, hell know) some individuals are “evil.” Our system does not allow for judgements like that. Truth-In-Sentancing removed a lot of the little discretion that judges and parole boards had to begin with (and, I believe, will go down in history as one of the worst ideas in criminal justice history.)

It’s trite but true: the price of freedom is crime. The price of civil liberties is the chance you may be victimized. There’s simply no way to change that.

Very informative and thoought provoking. Thank you.

Its a little discouraging to think that nothing can be done. Ultimately the answer is not in the legal system but in the hearts of those that make and execute the laws.

If we strive to have more equality in life liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that might be a step in the right direction.


It’s an ideal worth striving for, but it is something which will never be accomplished.

Human beings are hard-wired for stratification. There will always be an underclass, despite our best intentions. Racial elitism is replaced by economic elitism or educational elitism. We will always find some basis for discrimination-- it’s inevitable.

We find ways of justifying it in our own minds. Racial discrimination is slowly, slowly dying, to be replaced by prejudices which are more comfortable. One cannot help the color of their skin, but the elite can rest easy in the notion that people are poor or under-educated because they’re “lazy.”

They refuse to accept the notion that there simply aren’t enough opprotunities for everyone to live the American Dream. To believe this, one must accept the concept that capitalism is inherently unfair to some individuals and the notions that have been drilled into us since childhood that everyone can succeed with a little effort is a fallacy. It stikes a chord within some people that ideas like this are akin to blasphemy or un-patriotic.

I am making no value judgements here. It’s simply the way things are. I’m not saying that we’re “wrong” or “bad”-- just that we need to accept that the price of prosperity is an underclass or “surplus labor pool” which can never achieve (as a whole) what the elite have.

Because there will always be an underclass, there will always be a criminal class as well. We are a culture which encourages envy. We are supposed to covet what others have and buy our own. It’s parcially the basis of our economy. Everything in our culture urges us to acquire more things. Sometimes the media almost seems to hint that one needs Item X to be happy and fullfilled. Young people are under tremendous peer pressure to have the “right” shoes or clothing.

This culturally-influenced envy also falls on the poor-- those who cannot fulfill their desires through hard work or credit. If one has no other way to get Item X, which seems to ensure happiness, and has never been taught empathy or self-control, it can seem natural just to take it.

I want to stop here for a moment and talk about empathy. Social skills are not innate. We are not born knowing right from wrong. Call it “original sin” if you wish, or “the blank slate” but socialization is supposed to point us in a socially-approved direction. When that crucial socialization is missing or twisted, the results do not add up to a well-adjusted socially adept adult.

Poor parents are in a bind. They may want to raise their children the right way, but they also want to work. They might not be able to afford day-care or their families may be unable to care for the kids because they’re working, too. “Latchkey” kids who see little of their parents may be primarily socialized by their peers. If parents cannot control that peer influence, or steer the kids toward good influences, the child may be essentially raised by his peers to their moral/ethical code-- which may be completely contrary to what the parents may want.

Empathy is something which must be trained from babyhood. It’s seeing others through the lens of your self. How would I feel if this happened to me? It’s something that most criminals lack.

I’ll have to finish this later . . . I have to leave. But there’s more to come.

The virtue is in the struggle. All we can do is try to assist those who were fated to be on the bottom rungs of society.

What specific part of the Constitution do you feel these laws offend?

They constitute double jeopardy. When you commit a crime, you go on trial for that crime. If found guilty, then your past history may be considered in your sentence for that crime, but you should not have to face more than the maximum penalty for that crime. Three strikes is a nice phrase that makes people feel good, but the result is that judges are deprived of the opportunity to deliver just sentences. Rules that deny judges the ability to do their jobs, such as three strikes and zero tolerance, don’t benefit society as a whole.

Back to the OP- We have conflicting moral obligations. The rights of society trumps those of criminals, so unless a felon is truly rehabilitated he should stay locked up. The difficulty, of course, is how do you know?

Yes, there are crimes that should not get a second chance. First degree murder for one.

Yes, I think there are more civilized options. Putting non-violent criminals on electronic tethers is a bit more cost effective.

Yes, rights of innocent have precedence over those of the guilty.

I agree with your last sentence.

I don’t agree with the first part, and I’d note that we’re talking about different things – at least, I hope you’ll agree that we are. The question of whther a practice is Constitutional or not does not hinge on whether it benefits society.

As to the first part …

A three strikes law that purports to take into account crimes that happened before the three strikes law was passed should, I agree, be violative of the principles of double jeopardy, because they increase the penalties for a crime that’s already happened.

But a three strikes law that only counts crimes committed subsequent to the passage of the three strikes law doesn’t suffer from that infirmity: it simply increases the possible penalty for all felonies, if they are followed by more felonies.

Unfortunately, three-strikes laws decisions have generally held that they are constitutional; treating the three-strike consequences as collateral, not direct, results of the original crime, and thus permissible. I find these decisions poorly reasoned. But they are he law.

To continue with my earlier passage about empathy:

My husband was once talking with an inmate who had gotten into a fight with another inmate who had stolen his shoes. The first inmate said heatedly that thieves deserved to be beaten.

“That’s interesting,” my husband commented. “Aren’t you in for burglary?”

“Yeah. So?” the inmate replied, obviously not seeing the connection.

“How do you think the people you robbed feel?”

The inmate shrugged. “I dunno.” (And apparently didn’t much care.)

My husband asked, “Should they be able to beat you?”

The inmate looked shocked. “No! Of course not!”

My husband went over the contradiction with the inmate a couple times. The man was genuinely confused as to why it mattered what his victims felt, and was apparently unable to connect the rage he felt at losing his shoes to a thief to what his victims might have experienced. He didn’t seem to think others had any feelings.

It’s almost a form of social retardation. This inmate was never taught right from wrong, so the rules of society puzzle and frustrate him. They seem to exist for no reason, and the only thing he ever sees from these rules is punishment when he breaks them.

The “system” for these kinds of people exists only as a form of punishment which must seem haphazard and malicious. It does not protect them. People of this underclass are frequently victims of crime themselves, but law enforcement rarely is involved.

This is the type of criminal which is hardest to reach. Prison time is an opprotunity that is seldom explored. Often it’s the first introduction that an inmate has had to discipline and structured rules. With intensive one-on-one interraction with a counsellor or therapist, it may be possible to reach some of them and at least instill a rudimentary understanding of why rules exist and why we must obey them. It would also give them an opprotunity to see the system as less of faceless, cruel entity, especially if they were able to see rewards for good behavior.

If you add a lack of empathy to a lack of opprotunity, you get a recipe for a criminal mindset. We cannot eliminate poverty, and we can only try to scratch the surface in teaching empathy if it was not introduced early.

I’ve seen this before, but I don’t understand it. How is the penalty being increased for the crime that already happened , rather than increasing the penalty for the newest crime based on the prior history?

I have no beef with taking prior convictions into account when sentencing, I do have a problem with a three strikes rule making something like shoplifting into a life sentence. If the sentence under three strikes exceeds the maximum which would be imposed by the third strike alone, then I consider it double jeopardy.


I’m really enjoying your input. I agree that the cycles of humanity keep going with slim progress. One or two generations might make progress but the wheel turns and other generations back slide. My take on this is “Classes come and go, but the second grade is always the second grade”

I think it also has to do with the way in which we measure success. You’re correct. Too much of what we stress is material accumulation of stuff. There are many who are satisfied with the essentials of life if they can aquire them through some honest hard work. A decent home. A 2nd hand car. Affordable health care for them and their loved ones. An education for their kids.
I understand the conservative view. People shouldn’t be penalized for being smart and motivated. Too many government programs are increbibly wasteful and welfare has created generations of dependent poor who seem to feel entitled to certain basics simply because they’re citizens. Notice how immagrents will succeed by working together long hours over time and pooling their resources to get ahead. There needs to be some new discussion and evaluation of how we help each other. Democrat liberals can’t seem to find a language that attracts the reasonable moderates.

I think thats okay. If we teach our kids that integrity is worth more than designer jeans. I work in a regular sales job and have for years. For much of that time I made a reasonable and honest living. I think that works for a lot of people. We want people to work in stores and other so called menial jobs but it has become increasingly difficult for people in those jobs to afford the basics of life. Is it possible to turn that around?

I agree. Over the last two decades I’ve seen a shift in the moral compass of young people and the efforts their parents make to guide them. Single parent families has a lot to do with that but a big part of it to me is laziness. A lack of focusing on the parental responsibility. Video games and cable TV becomes the easy babysitter. Less parental involvement in schools and schools need help. I known single parents who struggle but understand that their chilfren are their priority. It isn’t easy but their kids grow up haveing a work ethic and some integrity.

I agree. I’d like to see more personnal involvement and less government funded programs. To help people to help themselves and each other. To help people find their voice. There seems to be a lot of small groups pursueing their own priorities instead of finding a common voice.

part two, below.

Not that I can see. And I think that the penal system is supposed to be just exactly that - a penal system. Not a “corrections” system or a “rehabilitation” system. If somebody screws up badly enough to warrant prison time, then let them do the time, and do all of the time.

The old saying about “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime” is extremely accurate. Right now, prisons are not a deterrent because people know that if they are convicted of a felony, they either 1) won’t go to prison at all but will go straight on probation or 2) they’ll do maybe a year or two and then get out on parole, which is essentially a vacation for them.

Interesting. I agree that some people are so focused on “what I want” that they just can’t seem to make the connection of how their actions affect others and what kind of response they might expect. Her’s another factor to consider.
I have some great friends who grew up in upper middle class families. Their parents worked hard and set standards for their kids. They are very much the “pull yourself up and stop whining people” They take resonsibility for themselves and expect others to do the same. They can’t identify much with people who don’t. In pondering this I came to this conclusion.

Some people {like them} grew up in an atmosphere that taught them “I can”
They accomplish things because they were instilled from childhood with that “I can” attitude along with a sense of personnal responsibility to themselves and to others. Others grew up in an atmosphere that instilled “I can’t” Aside from the “american dream” stuff we’re all exposed to, something in their upbringing instilled a sense of self doubt that in many cases is unconscious and buried.
It’s a hidden voice living inside them that keeps whispering “Don’t bother, you can’t do it” This voice can’t be openly acknowledged so it secretly influences behavior in many ways.
In the story you related I suspect that one reason the inmate wouldn’t recognize hids actions is this attitude. A deep seated belief of destined failure is hard to face up to. If he believes people will always look down on him and then deeper down believes he deserves it then it can easily result in antisocial behavior. It also could explain his reluctance to recognize the feelings of his victems. That’s a way of confirming his worst fears.
To me we must teach people to take responsibility for their actions and choices while teaching them to not let other peoples opinions be the foundation of who they are. Easy to say and oversimplified I know. Still I think there’s some truth there.

I think people should take responsibility for their actions but our system of justice has less and less of that. Companies get their crimes legalized or get a small affordable fine while our prisons fill up. Rehabilitation isn’t just something nice we do for criminals. It’s a way for our society to defend itself and try to avoid an increaseing crime rate. I’d like to see criminals do something to contribute in way of paying their debt to society. I’d like to see more criminals required to compensate the victems for the damage they’ve done whenever possible. It’s gotten way to impersonal. I do think it’s in our own best interest to offer something more than punishment.

The only problem is that there are some people out there who realisticly “can’t” no matter how optomistic their attitude, or how hard they try. There simply aren’t enough opprotunites out there for everyone.

It starts, of course, with education. A kid who starts out in a bad school is hamstringed. It’s hard to have a love of learning if everyone around you has nothing but contempt for it. Secondly, poor families can’t always afford tutors. Libraries may be too far away to walk, or in a dangerous neighborhood. College isn’t realistic for everyone. A poor kid who’s a “C” student and who isn’t athletic has little real chance of attending a university.

Then comes the problems with finding a good-paying job. Middle-class people often don’t understand the tremendous benefits their upbringing has given to them. Along with learning polite social skills, they also have access to transportation and a social network which can help them get into a career.

A bit about social skills: they are not something that you generally pick up on your own. “What do you want?” is a perfectly valid question, but it’s more correctly phrased, “How can I help you?” when working with customers. Someone who’s never been taught the difference will have trouble.

Medical care is an important part of getting a good job as well. No one wants a secretary or a salesman who is missing teeth or has a seeping eye infection. The poor often lack access to preventive medical care. (Many of the inmates in my husband’s prison had never been to the dentist or a doctor before being incarcerated. They have a host of issues which could have been easily and cheaply resolved if caught early, but they couldn’t do so.)

Clothing and transportation are two other roadblocks. You need “start up capital” for both. Many poor people don’t have cash on hand to go buy appropriate business-type clothing when job-hunting. Having a car, or access to public transportation is cruicial in widening the scope of the area in which a person can look. Friends aren’t reliable enough to depend on to get you to work every day on time, and public transportation doesn’t reach all areas.

Then, let’s not forget child care which can eat up a giant portion of a small starter salary.

It takes an incredibly determined person to overcome all of these obstacles. However, the poor are often mired in learned helplessness and despair. They see everyone around them, generations of family members, living a hand-to-mouth existance. Sure, it’s possible to overcome all of this-- but it’s highly unlikely.

I think sometimes that all of those lessons we have in school about being able to do anything we set our minds to doing, that America is the land of opprotunity in which anyone who tries will end up a success leads to a lot of bitterness and alienation. How can people feel a part of the “system” when the promises made in civics class didn’t seem to apply to them?

Instead of blithe optomism, perhaps that energy would be best directed to a realistic approach-- that you’re probably not going to end up an astronaut or President, but here’s how you can make the best of what you have.

Despite rumors to the contrary, I have never heard of an inmate who considers a stint in prison “vacation.” Prison sucks. Everyone there (including the staff :D) can’t wait to get out.

Usually, people don’t commit crimes with the possibility of punishment in mind. Either they were in the heat of the moment and didn’t think about it, or they think they won’t get caught.


I agree and for the reasons you articulated. Thats my point. If we recognize the problem is to not only change the “I can’t” mind set but to actually provide some vehicle to help the willing to achieve the basics. Education opportunities. Medical care. Child care. One problem is that welfare has changed the mindset to where many people think it’s their right as an American to be provided for. They seem to think they should be able to have all the extras on 40 hours. I think realism is a good idea. We can begin to shatter that concept. How about some public service to pay your way? A friend of mine comitted to several years of working with special ed kids to pay for her degree. We can also teach that there is respect and honor in any job. This needs to be taught not only to those in those jobs but the so called elite. More stuff doesn’t make you a better person.
I don’t think it’s the governments job to reach into the pocket of one person to support another. I do think that while some people die from lack of proper medical care others big problem is what size big screen HDTV to buy or whether they should go to Europe or Austrailia for vacation. Our priorities are a little messed up.

nice tangent.

If we accept that there is little rehabilitation then how do we protect society?
More prisons? More death sentences for repeat offendors? We’ve been talking about the ounce of prevention option. If that fails where does that leave us?