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May 2, 2013

"Can a Hard-Core Criminal Become a Better Person?"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new piece up at Slate coming from Quora where questions submitted by readers get answered by experts or persons in the know.   This question was answered by by Chris Richardson, a consultant, and here are excerpts:

Yes.  My father did.

He was born a sharecropper in Georgia in 1927.  His mother and father, never on easy terms (this is an understatement), separated when he was about 12 years old, and she moved with him and his younger sister to Boston, where she became a popular actress in the New Deal-funded black Shakespearean theater there....

They lived, of course, in the ghetto.  My father became a young hustler very early in his career there, pulling various scams to bring a little extra cash to the family....

When he was 14, the United States went to war.  My father wanted to join the fighting, but not only was his skin color a barrier, he was also too young to enlist.  But he knew he had to get out of Boston and the life of crime (and punishment); he didn't need to be clairvoyant to see in his future.

He eventually figured out how to join a mercenary group recruiting in Canada, was trained, outfitted, and shipped to China, where he fought against the Japanese during the war and later for the Communist Chinese government in various skirmishes afterward. From this, he learned the following: fluency in both Mandarin and Cantonese, much of which he retained in later life; a predilection for Asian women, and indeed for all things Asian; and how to do what was necessary to survive, including killing other humans without reservation or excessive remorse.

The latter skill paid off when, as a young man in the late 1940s, he was shipped to Los Angeles with nothing but a thank you from the Chinese government, a couple hundred bucks in his pocket and the shirt on his back.  He immediately learned that things hadn't changed much in his favor back home, so finding honest work for decent pay was not an option.  So he started hustling again, eventually becoming the leader of a group of drug smugglers bringing various contraband into Texas, Arizona, and California from Mexico. He learned Spanish.  In the course of these activities, he committed any number of violent crimes, including, rumor has it, murder.

A few years later, he was arrested for drug smuggling, tried, convicted, and sent to prison, where he remained for nearly 15 years, until his release in the early 1960s.

And this time, things were different.  The "crazy, liberal" California state government had created a program specifically designed to actually reform ex-convicts, including black ones, by sending them to college on special scholarships.  My father enrolled in Sacramento City College, transferred to UC-Davis (yes, that's my alma mater, too), and excelled. He earned multiple degrees in political science, met and married a crazy, rich white hippie chick from Orinda (my mother), fathered a son (me), and eventually landed a job as a professor of political science at the California State University in Chico.

He retired from Chico State in 1993, at the ripe old age of 66.  Nine years later, he died in his living room of a heart attack, five days before the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, having never committed another crime, other than the occasional traffic violation, again.

May 2, 2013 at 08:50 AM | Permalink


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When the life without parole for teens case was up for SCOTUS review, Alan Simpson, the retired Republican senator from Wyoming signed a brief in support of the teens, noting he himself was a teenage miscreant who committed various criminal acts. Like Obama/Bush using drugs, the consequences of such actions depends on various factors, not merely personal responsibility and chance of "becoming a better person." Of course, the chance of reform is a basic belief of many religions, including those that guide conservative tough on crime types in various cases. This has led them too to in various cases to see room for change. Religion should not be a reason for policy, but here there is some overlap.

Posted by: Joe | May 2, 2013 12:07:02 PM

' In the course of these activities, he committed any number of violent crimes, including, rumor has it, murder. '
I am sure your fathers victims are thrilled that your father 'redeemed' himself.

Posted by: Jeff | May 2, 2013 2:08:54 PM

There are various accounts of victims who reach out to those who harmed the ones they cared for and loved. Overall, if the person is going to go back to society, which is usually the case (no matter how harsh we treat some, we are not going to execute or warehouse for life them all), yes, the victims would be glad (if not "thrilled") if others are not similarly harmed but that the person made something of their lives. But, some victims might be more knee-jerk than some who allege to speak in their names.

Posted by: Joe | May 2, 2013 2:48:34 PM

edit: "less" knee-jerk

An example of my last comment is the author of "The Coffee Shop God" and the person behind a documentary. Her brother was murdered.


Posted by: Joe | May 2, 2013 2:52:02 PM

And there are some victims who want the criminal to die in prison. The fact is the father in this story, the and guy in the movie, are killers and violent offenders. Nothing can ever change that.

Posted by: jim | May 2, 2013 7:50:00 PM

Have there been any studies done that poll murder victim families or victims of violent crime who have been shot or maimed, but are still alive, and how they feel about rehabilitating the people who harmed them or their loved ones?

Posted by: Liz McD | May 3, 2013 12:43:28 AM

Isn't funny how Joe's liberal condescension comes out in the word, "knee-jerk?"

Posted by: federalist | May 3, 2013 11:08:59 AM

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