On the way home from Fredericksburg, Texas yesterday (I was attending the Renewable Energy Roundup, which I’ll discuss later), I was listening to a pregame show on the radio. The host was talking about Michael Vick, and how he should be allowed to play for the Eagles, in part because Vick had paid his debt to society. He was charged, convicted, and spent his time in federal prison.
Which is all well and good. I certainly agree that a person who has spent time in prison and is released should be allowed to say that he’s paid his debt to society, and it’s a sentiment that generally gets little argument on a theoretical basis. For example, this blog on USA Today echoes the sentiment: “He is a black man who committed a crime, paid his debt to society and is trying to return his life to some normalcy.” And Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has said the same thing (source), and so has the owner of the Atlanta Falcons, Arthur Blank (source).
I wonder, though, what these commentators think about things like sex offender databases? Or the fact that a regular every day citizen being charged with a crime essentially finds his or her ability to find lucrative employment drastically hampered. Or the fact that the United States has the highest prison population in the world (both in terms of sheer numbers and on a per capita basis). (Some reports have the United States at a 1% incarceration rate, others have it slightly lower.) And this doesn’t even count the sheer number of people who go through the courts and don’t end up in prison, either having their cases dismissed, receive probation, or get something like deferred adjudication or a suspended imposition of sentence. In other words, there are an awful lot of people in this country for whom a criminal record is a hindrance to being able to succeed.
The problem is exacerbated for individuals who get arrested but never get convicted, whether it’s through an acquittal at trial, having the case dismissed, or getting put on deferred adjudication community supervision. Arrest records are public records and prospective employers can gain access to them. In the case of dismissals and acquittals, the records can be expunged in certain circumstances. For deferred adjudications, one needs to file a petition for nondisclosure. This is because a deferred adjudication only means that a conviction will not be entered on the offense; the records will still be available until they are essentially sealed to the public. Other states may have other processes for sealing records, with some–such as Massachusetts–allowing records to be sealed after a certain period of time, regardless of whether that person received a final conviction. (Check with a Massachusetts lawyer if that’s what you are interested in.)
But to go back to my main point, for far too many people, paying society’s debts never ends. Jobs are foreclosed, and in some circumstances, such as getting a drug conviction, you can’t even get money to go to college. So, while it feels nice to say that Michael Vick has paid his debt to society, a broader view would be appreciated, and keep those who haven’t made millions of dollars playing a game for a living in mind while you say it.