Paid His Debt to Society

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I recall a saying that “he’s paid his debt to society.”  A person did something wrong.  He got caught.  He was convicted.  He went to prison and did his time.  Upon release from prison, he would be allowed to re-enter society with a fresh start.  All this because he paid his debt to society.  This was the circle of criminal life. 

I can’t recall the last time anyone used that phrase. 

Gideon, at A Public Defender, posts today about how Hawaii is considering a Murder Registry, akin to the Sex Offender Registry that has become all the rage.  Why a murderer registry is not clear, since the rationale for sex offenders is their recidivism rate and the belief that sex offenders cannot control themselves, and hence do not leave prison either deterred or rehabilitated.  Thus, while prisons may be forced to let them out, they still present an omnipresent threat.

Is this true for murderers as well?  After they’ve tasted blood, can they no longer control themselves and are doomed to kill again?  I’ve never seen anything to that effect, and don’t believe it to be true at all.  Indeed, murders, the various permutations that all fall under the homicide heading, span a very broad gamut.  From crimes of passion between spouses to road rage to drug killings, there is little commonality amongst “murderers” except that human life has been lost.

So does society need a Murder Registry, other than a means of sordid paranoia should reading the morning papers not be sufficient?  Of course not.  This is another example of remembering the rubric but forgetting the rationale.  If one registry is good, two is better.  Why not a registry for all crimes?  You know, just in case.

The whole registry concept is deeply troubling.  We are creating an underclass that will be permanently tainted and denied any possibility of re-entering society with a clean slate.  This is the scarlet letter on steroids.  What do we do with these people?  We would probably be kinder to put them on a deserted island somewhere to start their own community, where at least they could form some sort of society.  Instead, we let them move about ours, but in a way that makes it impossible to reintegrate and lead a useful life.  They are forever tainted, and some are tainted for the most ridiculous reasons bearing no connection to the purpose of the registry.  Is the 20 year old who has sex with his 16 year old girlfriend a crazed sex fiend who will molest children?  But he’s still on the Registry.  Forever and ever.

Registries appear likely to be the new flavor of the month.  The new “three strikes” magic bullet that will save society for the evil criminals.  Politicians will grasp them and hold them dear to their breasts, convincing a public desperate for the next new weapon that will rid society of crime and fear that they have the Answer.  Hooray for Registries!

But of course, this simple solution will fail, and we will be left to suffer the unintended consequences of another bone-headed idea, that offers enormous societal costs without any commensurate societal benefit.  And another basic precept of America will fall by the wayside.  When is the last time you heard anyone say, “he’s paid his debt to society.”  Yes, it’s been a very long time.

One comment on “Paid His Debt to Society

  1. dave

    yeah this is so true i served time my debt was paid but i still cant get a good job to support my family, i have trucking license that is useless as most companies want 10 years from the last felony. no wonder the recidivism rates are so high.

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