Reform v. Reformers: The Poster Boy Delusion

From the moment hearts began to break for Matthew Charles, it was clear that the unduly passionate would conflate the “injustice” suffered by this one person with the problem to be cured. Charles brought two very valuable assets to the table. First, he was an unquestionably worthy poster boy for the cause. Second, the government’s demand that he be returned to prison following Charles’ mistaken release was something that everyone could agree was wholly unjustified and unjustifiable.

It was also a total outlier scenario that bore, at most a tangential connection to the norm, to the general problem facing people who had done everything they could to improve themselves while in prison and prepare themselves for a re-entry into society, where they could live happy, law-abiding lives.

It’s unclear how many “Matthew Charleses” there are in prison. Maybe a thousand. Maybe a million. But as they were never erroneously released and unceremoniously returned, they would never be Matthew Charles. And, in its relative and peculiar way, it’s good to be Matthew Charles, not because he didn’t suffer but because all the others who suffered very much like him would never get the attention he got.

Is it good to be the beneficiary of Kim Kardashian’s largesse, not to mention audience on social media? It’s certainly good for a guy coming out of prison to have someone pay your rent or champion your cause when no landlord will rent an apartment to you.

And unsurprisingly, replies to this very public request included people who were also in need of someone to pay their rent, to champion their cause. Whether they deserved it or not is unknown, but it raises the question of whether Matthew Charles, deserving though he may be, is the only person in need of help, worthy of Kardashian attention.

This by no means is to suggest Kim Kardashian is wrong to pick a poor soul and try to help. As criminal defense lawyers, we save people one at a time as well. It’s not enough, but it’s what we do. But we also grasp our role in the system and know that tomorrow it will be another poor soul, and the next day another. We realize that there is no shortage of people for whom our efforts are needed. Does Kardashian? Do her millions of followers?

Matthew Charles is running head first into a wall built by landlords and their insurers, that renting an apartment to a newly released convict exposes other tenants, the ones who managed not to commit a particularly heinous crime or at least not get caught, to theoretical harm and therefore liability. If a landlord rents to a known felon, and that known felon subsequently harms another person, his negligent renting will be the first place the new victim’s lawyer looks for redress. And the landlord will immediately contact the insurer.

The sad story of a sweet, innocent tenant being raped, assaulted, murdered, by some ex-con will break hearts too. When the criterion for “something must be done” is that the story broke your heart, such irreconcilable conflicts are unavoidable. Hearts require no logic to break, and so we consistently support fixes that will cause obviously untenable situations to arise, and justify them by limiting our concerns to the sad stories.

How can you not feel for the suffering of Matthew Charles? How can you not feel for the suffering of the tenant who was murdered? Both may be true, but who wins in the heartbreak sweepstakes?

California, where more laws are motivated by sad one-off stories as an experiment in public policy failure than anywhere else, is considering a law to seal criminal records after sentences are completed.

Under a bill now making its way through the California State Legislature, millions of people in the state who have misdemeanor or lower-level felony records could be spared those problems: their criminal records would automatically be sealed from public view once they completed prison or jail sentences. The legislation would not apply to people convicted of committing the most serious crimes, like murder or rape.

The quaint notion that once a person has “paid their debt to society,” they should be welcomed back and given the opportunity to thrive died long ago. While it might serve better to re-establish this understanding of re-entry, it’s far easier to pass a law in lieu of shifting those with easily broken hearts to pick a side and recognize that there will be the occasional innocent tenant, co-worker, barbershop customer, who will be harmed.

One in three Americans has a criminal record, according to the Justice Department, and a National Institute of Justice study found that having a criminal record reduced the chance of getting a job offer or a callback by 50 percent.

If you’re an employer with ten job applications on your desk, six of which reflect no conviction, would you hold that against the applicant? What incentive is there for you to say, “Hey, why not risk catastrophe and pick the ex-con when I have all these other people who managed not to get convicted?” As with well-intended laws to “ban the box” to check if you’ve been convicted, decision-making is done by proxy. That didn’t turn out well.

By twitting about her new pal, Matthew Charles, Kim Kardashian touches upon a problem that affects thousands of poor souls. When he gets an apartment, many of her followers will believe the problem is solved, and gushingly thank Kardashian for saving the whales.

Others will query why there isn’t a Matthew Charles law to prevent this grave injustice from happening. Few will consider the damage that might come of whatever simple fix to the thousands of others whose names they will never know and who will be left to pay their own rent. These will be the same voices telling about how their heart is broken when some ex-con rapes and murders some sweet woman who baked cookies for the neighborhood children.

15 thoughts on “Reform v. Reformers: The Poster Boy Delusion

  1. Black Bellamy

    When I’m looking for a job in the NYC metro area, in the “relevant skills and experience” section of the job application, I always put down “Never killed nobody”. I know they’re not allowed to ask so I just want to put their mind at ease right up front.

  2. Pedantic Grammar Police

    I appreciate the “felony” question because it helps me avoid places where I don’t want to work anyway. If they ask me a bunch of stupid questions about something that happened 20 years ago, I know to stay away.

    It appears that California has not “banned the box,” because I encountered it the other day, saving me from a potentially uncomfortable entanglement.

  3. Skink

    “The quaint notion that once a person has “paid their debt to society,” they should be welcomed back and given the opportunity to thrive died long ago.”

    Quaint, indeed. The notion never existed. Throughout history, there’s been an extra-legal consequence to criminality. Society expects it. It was expected centuries ago, and I doubt there will ever be a widespread belief that this is a “grave injustice.” Isolated incidents of the seemingly thoroughly rehabilitated “Poster Boy” produce nothing more than momentary “Oh Mys.” No matter what the California legislators do, that state’s citizens don’t want a pizza delivered by a driver with a DUI or two any more than they will accept a shoplifting bookkeeper.

    The debt to be paid is more than punishment by courts. There really is a “debt to society,” and that will not be eliminated. Potential employers and landlords will background applicants, because, as you recognize, they must. Sealing convictions only causes that background to be based on information from, so the information gathered will be arrests, not convictions. Then again, it already is based on arrests–the information is there.

    The box can be banned; convictions can be sealed. Some people will call it progress. But none of this will change a goddamned thing.

    1. SHG Post author

      There was a time when most people could do their time and be given a second chance. Not everyone subscribed to the quaint notion, but there was nothing like the universal condemnation in perpetuity that’s since evolved. I saw it, because some of these folks were my clients, and I saw them do their time, come out and be given the chance to succeed.

      1. Pedantic Grammar Police

        It’s not OK for companies to ask “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” and then make a drama if you say “Yes,” but I don’t see a problem with “Have you been convicted of a felony in the past X years?” for values of X appropriate to the industry and position. It is reasonable for companies to not want to hire people who just got out of prison, or for trusted jobs, to expect several years of good behavior. Trying to hide the information is just stupid; it is a public record and it should be.

        1. SHG Post author

          You should alert Gov. Gavin Newsom to your thoughts. Maybe he’ll change the law after he hears from you. As for me, I just feel fortunate to know what you don’t see a problem with, and have no regrets about diving head first into the cesspool at the bottom of your rabbit hole.

          1. Pedantic Grammar Police

            Landing would be painful without the cesspool. Would you want me to hurt my head?

        2. phv3773

          In some industries, e.g. banking, a felony leads to a hard “no!”. Regulatory requirement, I think.

  4. Casual Lurker

    With regard to jobs, as you point out, the general feeling is that, without incentives, why take the risk if you have a pool of job candidates known to have a clean record?

    Here’s what potential employers are confronted with, from the National Institute of Justice’s page on Recidivism, excerpted from the below cited PDF:*

    • Within three years of release, about two-thirds (67.8 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.

    • Within five years of release, about three-quarters (76.6 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.

    • Of those prisoners who were rearrested, more than half (56.7 percent) were arrested by the end of the first year.

    • Property offenders were the most likely to be rearrested, with 82.1 percent of released property offenders arrested for a new crime compared with 76.9 percent of drug offenders, 73.6 percent of public order offenders and 71.3 percent of violent offenders.

    I fully recognize that a one-size-fits-all approach is less than optimal. But until there’s an efficient, cheap, way to sort the wheat from the chaff, those with records will remain at the bottom of the hiring barrel.

    The problem, in a nutshell, as I’ve previously pointed out…**

    “…just about every textbook on behavioral psychology says ‘past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior’.”

    Bigwigs in the field of behavioral psychology are forever arguing about the reliability of various predictive factors. And while not perfect, past behavior is the only one that is consistently reliable better than 50 percent of the time. While an oversimplification, what it boils down to is people are largely creatures of habit, and without intense behavioral modification therapy they tend to fall back into familiar patterns.


    2). Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 30 States in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010, BJS Special Report
    April 2014, NCJ 244205 (31 pages)

    **SJ: The Rehabilitation Of A Cop

    Links solely for your convenience.

    (I’m done. Only ten comments, instead of the usual 326).

    1. SHG Post author

      Just got home from dinner and I’m a bit sleepy. I approved your comments, for your cathartic benefit as I realize how therapeutic this is for you, but won’t read them. Sorry. Maybe tomorrow, but no promises.

      Edit: So I had a few moments this morning and read your comments. Sorry again.

  5. neoteny

    California, where more laws are motivated by sad one-off stories as an experiment in public policy failure than anywhere else

    That’s some outstanding rhetoric you’ve committed there, Admiral. Very nicely played, sir.

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