The thief on the cross would never have survived the scrutiny of the Michigan Parole Board and the Michigan Attorney General’s office. Jesus forgave. We won’t.
The older I get, and the more I work in this prisoner advocacy business, the more I become convinced that we won’t really see forgiveness in our criminal justice system. Ever. It ain’t gonna happen.
I testified in another public hearing today, held by the Michigan Parole Board. I cannot prove this, but I sense that these hearings are grudgingly held in a spirit of skepticism. In many of the hearings where I have testified, there is a snowball’s chance that the inmate will actually be granted a parole. We’re a “tough on crime” state, and by God, if someone has committed a heinous crime in Michigan, he or she will pay!
I know that when I make my pitch, I’m perceived as a left-wing “do-gooder,” who wants to free all the prisoners. I can see that in the eyes of the Parole Board chairman and the Assistant Attorney General. They extend the courtesy, but I get the feeling that whatever I have to say doesn't really mean anything.
Joe committed terrible crimes in his early 20s, while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. He still wakes up thinking about it. He cries when he talks about it. There’s nothing he can do to erase that record. The only thing he can do is take steps to change his life. And so, while in prison, he became a spiritual being, he completed high school, he completed college, he served as a tutor, he took improvement courses, he enrolled in abuse programs…he learned to behave himself. In the next 38 years in prison, he brought about change in his life.
In preparation for a possible release if granted parole, he developed a plan including an in-depth relapse prevention outline. He wasn’t going to take any chances on re-offending. His simple goal was to get his Master’s Degree, and serve as a substance abuse counselor. He didn’t want others to follow his early path of destruction.
But it’s not going to happen. The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office showed up to oppose the parole. Then the victim of the crime showed up to oppose the parole. And finally the representative from the Michigan Attorney General’s office made a strong statement of opposition. The crime was just too atrocious.
No one seemed to care what happened in the next 38 years. That really wasn’t important. The focus was on the crime, and this man was going to pay. Retribution is important. Rehabilitation is not.
I personally struggle with this whole “forgiveness” issue in Christianity. I’m in my senior years, and I still continue to blame myself for terrible lapses in judgment in my earlier years. I find it difficult to forgive myself. And I find it hard to believe that I’m forgiven. Then I fall back on a sermon that I heard from one of my favorite preachers, Dr. Richard Mouw. He quoted a verse from a beautiful traditional hymn, and said this is what separates Christianity from all other religions: My sin, Oh the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more!
At least Joe has that comfort.
Here in Michigan, it’s a different story.