Monday, January 28, 2013

Life After Prison: Should It Involve Public Service?

Back when I was in college, in the time of the dinosaurs, I ran a program that placed college students in hospital nurseries.  The mission of our organization was to ensure that infants left in the hospital for longer than a few days had someone to hold them, to feed them, to love them.  Many of the hospitals we supplied volunteers to had serious problems with abandonment, with mothers who were arrested shortly after birth and the babies were left.  There were drug addicted babies and babies with the most serious medical problems I have ever seen. 

I spent a lot of time in the NICU back then, I heard the stories of these brand new lives and the challenges they would be facing.  I took small comfort in knowing that I had done what I could as a 20 year old college student to make them feel loved, wanted and welcome in this world, even if only for a few days. 

As part of my job overseeing the organization as a whole, I had to recruit other students to facilitate the programs at each hospital.  One of my goals was to begin a program at Children's Hospital, not just for newborns, but for any of the children who could use a friendly face while they were there.  It took a lot of convincing, but we got the program launched, and I needed someone to run it. 

One person was eager to help.  He was energetic and kind.  He was working towards a career in physical therapy, and had a genuine interest in helping kids.  It was a perfect fit, except for one thing.  He checked the box on the application that told me that he had a criminal record.  I had to ask him about it as part of the background check, both for our program and on behalf of the hospital. 

He'd been an impulsive teenager and made some bad choices.  He was convicted on several misdemeanor counts of larceny.  He'd been placed on probation, and was free of all that when he sat before me, with hope in his eyes.  I got the sense immediately that his life had been made more complicated because he was required to check that box on other applications in the past. 

I asked him a few more questions, we talked for a long time.  I knew that he was trustworthy, I knew that he'd learned from his mistakes, I knew that he was genuine.  And he was the best hospital coordinator I ever had. 

I'll never forget the tears in his eyes when I told him that I'd call the hospital, I'd take care of telling them, that I would do whatever I had to do to make this happen.  Not many people had taken a chance on him, but I was willing to. 

I tell you this story because I need to.  Because there is another story in the news right now that is in so many ways similar to this one, but the magnitude is so much greater.  And I'm not at all sure how I feel about it. 

In 1997 in Colorado Springs, a 16 year old boy named Gary Flakes was convicted in a murder trial.  Two teenage boys were killed with shotguns at close range.  Two teenage boys were in the car and carrying the gun that night.  Both defendants were convicted, Flakes being one of them, though neither was convicted of murder.  Flakes has always claimed that his co-defendant was the shooter.

Flakes was specifically convicted of accessory to murder after the fact and criminally negligent homicide.  He was tried as an adult. 

The time Flakes spent in prison wasn't uneventful.  He had over a dozen disciplinary actions against him, including inciting a prison riot.  When he was released initially, he violated the terms of his probation and was put back in jail for a few months. 

Now a free man, he is married and has claimed that he's dedicated his life to mentoring youth.   A few months ago, he announced plans to run for City Council.

His co-defendant is still in prison.  He says that through the teachings of Malcolm X, he is a changed man.  He's become a devout Muslim.  He says he is enrolled in school.  He says he wants to give back to society, he wants to make a difference.  Some people believe him.

The families of the victims are outraged.  In their eyes, true justice was not served here.  The victims were shot at close range with a shotgun.  Neither of the defendants were convicted of murder.  Though they were both tried as adults, they were not convicted of the most severe offenses, and used creative lawyering on appeals to try and have their sentences reduced.  He was not a model prisoner and violated his probation.  They don't believe for one second that he deserves the right to run for office. 


In the state of Colorado, however, Flakes is considered a citizen just like anyone else.  Colorado is one of only five states that restores the right of a convicted felon to vote, and there are no laws forbidding a convicted felon from running for or holding office here.

I am torn.  I live in a world where people have to be allowed second chances.  Where the past shouldn't be allowed to dictate everything about our present.  Where I've been the person who took the leap of faith, who put her own name and reputation on the line to go to bat for someone who needed it.  He served the time for the crime he was convicted of, but is that enough?

I'm not sure.  I don't think I'm convinced that he's truly paid his dues to society.  Serving out a sentence isn't all that is involved in restoring someone to society.  Maybe with more time, with more work to give back to the community first.  Maybe.  His opponents take issue with his lack of experience, especially the fact that he does not yet possess a college degree. 

The story has received a lot of attention here locally, both in support of him, and in opposition to the entire idea of it all.  Personally, I am glad, very glad, that I'm not a resident of Colorado Springs, and that this will never be my decision to make.

I wish him luck for the future, whether it involves public office or  not. 

I wish, more than that, for peace in the lives of the families of the victims.

3 comments:

  1. Well to quote Malcom X: "There is no better teacher than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance the next time."

    This is why everyone should be able to run for public office and everyone should be able to vote. Let the voters decide who is qualified or best to serve.

    His record sounds a like like Malcolm X's. Yet the Malcom X at the age of 35 was light years from the Malcolm Little of 15.

    Would I vote for him? Likely not. But the voters there shouldn't be denied the right to deny him, if they see fit.

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    Replies
    1. I agree. I don't know that I would vote for him either, but I can understand the reasoning for allowing him to run. In many states, he wouldn't even have that option. In even more states, he'd never be allowed to vote again.

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  2. wow, again what an awesome topic to broach. It's really hard to know if someone is changed in their heart or if they're just giving you lip service.
    I wonder where this will go?

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