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Ken Hardin: How long must people pay for their mistakes?

would much rather spend time with people who’ve made mistakes in their lives, whose lives have been a little misshapen or who didn’t walk down that path littered with rose petals. I like being in the company of those who recognize why they temporarily lost their way and are on a redemptive path. We are a nation of forgiveness and second chances, right?

I’m happy the internet and camera phones weren’t around in my youth. I never crossed over the line or did anything illegal, but there were some youthful shenanigans my friends and I engaged in that kicked some dirt close to that line. So I understand the saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

When my sons were getting ready to head off to college, I told them if you live the first half of your life trying not to disappoint your parents and the second half trying not to embarrass your kids, you’ll be OK. In theory that simplistic bit of advice is great, but then this thing called real life tends to get in some people’s way.

As Michelle Alexander, associate professor of law at Ohio State University and author of the highly praised book, “The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” said in an interview, “We’re all criminals. We’ve all made mistakes in our lives.”

For seven years, I worked in the belly of what some on the inside of the prison referred to as the beast. I saw a lot of dreams curl up and die and even more that never took root because they were stuck in the revolving door of recidivism.

Part of the problem seems to be that we lack a true system of justice. I would never discount the importance of personal responsibility and accountability, but once in that system, it’s nothing more than a collection of laws enforced inconsistently and unevenly. When a 14-year-old can be sent to the electric chair for a heinous crime he had no part in, there is little semblance of a just system. If a killer like O.J. Simpson can taunt prosecutors and the family of those he viciously murdered by writing a book titled, “If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer,” then we’re truly being laughed at. The recent spate of non-indictments has made this even less humorous.

We try to turn this comedy into a serious drama by sending people to prison under the guise of rehabilitation — a concept that doesn’t exist. If a person knows nothing but nefarious ways, what are you taking him back to? Instead of that failed concept, why not place emphasis on redirecting their lives in a more positive direction?

In the past week, I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with two friends who are trying to take advantage of this elusive second chance promise. What I found disappointing is that even though the missteps they took in life were nearly 20 years ago, those mistakes still hamper their ability to move forward. When does a person, who has dedicated their post incarceration life to self-improvement and giving back to their community, stop having to pay for that deviation from the law? It’s as if their name is assigned a comma and they’re introduced with the extra title of “John/Jane Doe, who did 10 years in prison.”

How can we criticize those who’ve paid their debt for not becoming productive citizens when we never give them the opportunity to recover from that debt? Although their post-release résumés and accomplishments are impressive, a cloud of judgment continues to hover over them. It speaks volumes when you complete an undergraduate and MBA but are refused retail employment. The double speak, hemming, hawing and coded language explanations given for refusal to hire are shameful. No one in this position is looking for preferential treatment, just that elusive promise and an equal opportunity.

I’m not easily fooled. I know prison speak when I hear it. I’ve heard the proselytizing of those newly released who are going to change the world. They’re so skilled with their forked tongue they can turn the wine back into water and quench your thirst as you sit in a lawn chair on the sun. I look behind those words and listen for sincerity, not a sales pitch. One statement that caught my ear was a response to the question what would keep you from returning to prison, “I didn’t leave anything in there that I need to go back and get. Everything they had in there, I can find out here.”

If we’re truly a nation of second chances, we need to live up to that promise, offer hope and give an opportunity to those who are truly trying to redirect their lives.

Kenneth Hardin lives in Salisbury.

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