What good can a murderer do?

Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has been taking more flak than a WWII fighter pilot this week for pardoning 200 people, including murderers.  The public outcry has ranged from “He didn’t follow the Constitution” to “What’s he doing letting murderers and rapists out?!” to “Why do we have this antiquated pardon system anyway?”

But to me, the saddest part is the tone of those who are essentially saying, “Once a murderer always a murderer.”  There is no affirmation of the human spirit here; no recognition that some people — not all people, but some people — can and do change and deserve a second chance out here with the rest of us.  There is no humility; no acknowledgment that, but for the grace of God, it could be me sitting behind bars serving life for killing someone.  There is no mercy; only a dehumanizing condescension that says, “These murderers are not people — they are, forever and always, only murderers.”

Well, this stirring article from the Detroit Free Press takes a deeper look at what good a band of murderers can do in Michigan’s Ryan Correctional Facility:

In 2008, more than a dozen inmates — members of an NAACP prison program — started bringing troubled young men, ages 15-18, into Ryan once a month for some real talk on life and crime. It happened again on Dec. 16, when more than 20 Detroit teenagers, mostly from Osborn High School, walked through the metal detectors into the drab prison visiting room, many expecting some kind of lame and discredited Scared Straight show.

But Ryan’s Youth Deterrent Program is not Scared Straight. I’m not sure you can scare kids today, anyway. Prisoners don’t scream, threaten or get into anyone’s face. They speak calmly and respectfully, sitting with young people in a circle on cheap plastic chairs, telling their stories, asking questions and listening. …

Wearing numbered orange and blue uniforms, most of these prisoners are serving life sentences for murder. Only they can separate the fantasies of thug life from the realities of living doubled-up in a closet-sized steel cell, losing family and friends, submitting to strip searches and enjoying no privacy. …

So far, the results are encouraging. Noah Bruner, founding director of Operation Reach community center in Saginaw, brought 100 teenagers into Ryan from March 2009 to March 2010. (Ryan inmates just contributed $500 to the community center to help pay for two vans.) None got in serious trouble afterward, Bruner said. The community must, however, follow up with mentors and other social and recreation services.

I don’t know the facts of all of the cases Governor Barbour pardoned or commuted.  It does sound like at least some of the clemency grants were done improperly and hastily, and that victims were not given the consideration they would have liked to receive.  If a few undeserving folks slipped through, it should not reflect on those who deserved and earned clemency.  FAMM advocates for increased use of the pardon power, and Governor Barbour has acted bravely.  We’d like to see that much courage displayed by other governors and President Obama.

Prisoners — who are, at the end of the day, human beings just like you and me — can redeem themselves.  They have powerful stories that can make a positive impact, as the Michigan story shows.  It’s not just nonviolent offenders who get sentences that don’t fit, or earn a second chance at society’s trust.

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