Once a Rapist, Always a Rapist?

SVU Promo

SVU Promo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a bit of rehabilitation and that’s the end of the matter. Your debt to society has been paid. You can live out the rest of your life in peace. Right? Apparently not for Mike Tyson or the hundreds of other convicted felons who leave prison each year only to find themselves completely locked out of society.

The controversy surrounding NBC’s decision to cast Mike Tyson in an episode of SVU has served to highlight a thorny issue. How long should a person be punished for the crimes of their past? If, like Mike Tyson, a person committed a crime twenty years ago, served their sentence and has not been accused since, is it really fair to keep on punishing them? Do we believe a person can be rehabilitated? Do we truly want to tackle crime? Just what is the point of incarceration?

If our goal is simply to punish, then by all means continue as we are but recognize there are consequences. If our goal is to keep dangerous criminals away from society, then lock them up and throw away the key, or utilize the death penalty. However, if our goal is rehabilitation, if we truly intend to reform our criminals and give them a chance to become a productive member of society, then their punishment needs to end at the prison gate.

To continue to punish them after their sentence is served, to exclude them from society, forever stigmatizing them, denying them employment, quality companionship and a decent place to live, is to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. It forces them to continue a life a crime, either to ‘punish’ a society that has turned it’s back on them, or through the sheer necessity of survival.

Every time we allow our fear or distrust of an ex-convict to cause us to mistreat them, every time we deny them gainful employment, every time we deny them the ability to live in our neighborhood, every time we withdraw companionship from them, we are denying them their basic human rights, depriving them of the means to survive. We are giving them only two options – starve to death or commit further crimes. Hell, even in prison we provide criminals with food, water and fulfillment of the more subtle but no less urgent need for human companionship.

There are many criminals who will continue breaking the law no matter what. People like this are a threat to society, and should be locked up forever. There are a lucky few who, despite all the obstacles thrown their way, manage to pull their lives together and make positive contributions to society. Then there are the majority. The criminals who serve their sentence only to succumb to the pressures and discrimination of a society that no longer wishes to claim them. People who never get the chance to find out who they could have been.

I do not know what prompted NBC to employ Mike Tyson, but , despite being a victim of the very crime for which he was convicted, I applaud with their decision. I believe he can serve as a role model for young offenders trying to turn their lives around. “Don’t give up,” he seems to be saying, “You don’t have to remain in the system. You can be a better person. There are still people who are willing to give you the chance at a new life.”

And that is what we, as a society should be striving for. We have all done things we regret – some of them not strictly legal – but we are not the same person at forty as we were at twenty. Everyone deserves a second chance. Even Mike Tyson.

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2 thoughts on “Once a Rapist, Always a Rapist?

    • I agree it is a difficult issue. I’m sure I would feel uncomfortable If I knew my neighbour were a convicted rapist. However, I would try hard to live with the fact rather than harassing him or lobbying for him to move. Unless he was a serial offender, of course. Then all bets are off.

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