Every once in a while there's a high profile parole hearing, where everyone gets geared up on one side or the other. (And yes, we just had one up my way.) They're usually murder cases, sometimes horrific. There is press coverage, rehashing the crime in all its gory details. The family (usually) protests vociferously to any parole. The character witnesses for the prisoner are generally considered either bleeding hearts and/or easily gulled and/or sincere but mistaken. And usually the prisoner is not released. Contrary to the television world, I would say that 90% of all violent offenders do not get released their first time up for parole, or second, or third. And many violent offenders do not and perhaps will never get released.
This may not be a bad thing: Charles Manson leaps to mind. He is currently 80 years old, still residing in Corcoran State Prison in California, and that's fine with me. The members of his "family" who participated in the Tate-LaBianca Murders (mostly tried in 1970, one in 1971) were:
- Susan Atkins - 17 parole hearings, all denied; 22 years old going in; died at 61 in prison.
- Patricia Krenwinkle - 13 parole hearings, all denied; 23 years old going in; currently 67 years old.
- Tex Watson - 14 parole hearings, all denied; 25 years old going in; currently 69 years old.
- Leslie Van Houten - 19 parole hearings, all denied; 19 years old going in; currently 65 years old.
Everyone agrees that they were manipulated by Manson; that he masterminded the horrible murders; that they were under the influence of drugs. All had/have, over their 40+ years in prison, claimed to become born-again Christians, and/or worked with AA, NA, and other organizations, and/or transformed. It is extremely doubtful that any of them will ever be paroled. The crimes were too horrific (although no more horrific than others that have been committed against less famous people) and received too much publicity.
Okay. So what about these cases?
- A 16 year old tried as an adult, convicted, and sentenced to life without parole for shooting a taxi driver in cold blood in order to get the taxi and use it to flee from the scene of a robbery the kid had just committed.
- An 18 year old Native American killed another man in a drunken brawl and was sentenced to life without parole because "he would never be a decent member of society."
- Any of the many "three strikes and you're out" life convictions for committing three felonies.
What if they clean up their act, sober up, get saved, whatever, study, work hard, participate in AA, NA, and other organizations, and/or were transformed in various ways? Two questions:
- Is there really such a thing as repentance and transformation?
- Does it matter?
- They've - we've - all been taken one too many times; we've all been screwed big time and haven't gotten over it.
- They can't imagine another person's life, much less that life actually changing. How can someone, anyone, think/feel/act differently than me without being dangerously crazy, and in need of serious treatment and/or incarceration? (Well, that's what fiction is for, to explain it.)
- Life is much easier when you maintain the "once a ___, always a ___" attitude.
- retribution and/or incapacitation (as in Old Testament/Sharia law);
- deterrence (although there have been studies that prove people aren't deterred by the severity of punishment; certainly in Restoration/ Victorian England, where people were hanged for stealing a handkerchief, there were still plenty of thieves because poverty was so endemic); and
(Although, speaking of debts, we all know, don't we, that prison is extremely expensive? Which is part of the push towards private prisons which, frankly, scare the hell out of me, because private prisons have quotas for occupancy... And then there's the whole thing of trying to pry all the costs for our court system out of the accused and arrested - whether or not they are found innocent. And then there's the infamous case of the woman who died in jail because her children skipped school and someone had to pay the truancy fines and they didn't have the money, so she got to go to the equivalent of debtors' prison in Pennsylvania.)
Look, I believe in rehabilitation. I believe in transformation. I am not the same person I was in my teens (thank God). And yet, I have no answers, just questions. There are some crimes for which I'd lock people away for life. But they may not always be the same crimes that someone else would lock a person away for life.
And then there's Saul. He was guilty, at the very least, of accessory to murder (he held the coats as Stephen got lynched), and he was going to kill as many heretics as he could find. And then Saul got knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus, and became a believer overnight, blinded and restored to sight by a miracle. He eventually had to leave Damascus - in the middle of the night - and went to Jerusalem, with a new name - Paul - but that didn't fool anybody. The disciples didn't want anything to do with him, because they didn't believe that he had changed. It was a big risk. They took some convincing. So do we. So do I. The question is, when is the risk worth taking? Is it worth taking? How do we know?