Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Parole is not a dirty word

A 69 year-old man who committed murder when he was a naive 22 year-old was released on parole today and many think this is a sign that our criminal justice system is a joke and that we let murderers go with a slap on the wrist.  I think it is a sign that life without parole is an unnecessary sentence for the vast majority of those convicted of murder.  The truth is that most people who commit murder should ultimately be released on parole because there is simply no good reason to keep holding them.

Thomas Hagan has long admitted his role in the assassination of Malcolm X.  He went to prison 44 years ago and has since been proving that even people who commit egregious acts can still change, grow, and lead productive lives.  While in prison, Hagan has earned a master's degree in sociology.  Since 1992, he has been in a work release program that allowed him to live with his family 5 days a week while reporting to prison on the weekends.  He was under parole supervision while he was in that program.  For the last 7 years, he has held the same job.  He has volunteered at a mosque helping young men.  And he now hopes to become a certified substance abuse counselor.  He has also expressed remorse for his part in Malcolm X's murder and now understands how we was led to commit the crime.

Sounds like a complete success story to me.  This man took his time behind bars to improve himself, to think about his crime, to learn from his mistakes, and to find a way he could contribute.  In fact,  I would suggest he should have been released on parole any one of the earlier 14 times the parole board considered him.  Why should taxpayers have to pay to house someone who is no threat to anyone just because of something he did 44 years ago?  Nothing good would have come from keeping this man in prison any longer.  No one is in any danger from him.  His family, though, will benefit from having him home 7 days a week, instead of just 5.

The pat answer from those who think no murderer should ever see the light of day again is, of course, that the victim's family doesn't get the benefit of having their loved one with them.  To me that's a terribly unsatisfying answer.  The reality is that there is nothing we as a society can do to come up with a "fair" response to murder.  There is no way to even the score between the murderer and the victim.  (No, we really can't kill them all.)  So we should just admit that and stop expecting a punishment system that is based on evening the score.  The best we can really do is deal with the person who is before us and if we can help that person turn his life around, become remorseful for his crime and appreciative of why it happened (which suggests that he won't let that happen again), well we should just be glad that something good came out of a tragedy.

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