What Happens When Prison Is Over?

A few years ago, a Welsh professional footballer playing for Sheffield United FC in England was having a banner year. In addition to scoring goals by the truckload, he also represented his country on the Welsh national team and was named to the League’s Team of the Year. How good he was, or could have been, is unclear–lots of players are stars in lower divisions but fail to transition successfully to more competitive leagues.[1] Still, his standout performance was naturally attracting some attention from clubs in higher divisions of English football, including the top tier Premier League. Even if that interest never materialized, he was still a professional footballer, was making decent money, and could have maintained that level of income for a number of years–perhaps more than a decade, barring injuries.

Then, just before the end of the season, he was arrested on charges of rape, found guilty at trial by a jury, and sent to prison.

Prison sentences aren’t eternal, though. After serving 2.5 years of a 5 year sentence, Ched Evans was released a few weeks ago, and there is a whole lotta handwringing going on over whether or not Sheffield United (or any other football club) should sign him to a new contract.[2] However, recent news reports have indicated that Ched is being allowed to work out with his former team–though the club itself maintains that no contract is forthcoming any time soon. Nevertheless, the current manager of Sheffield United has not given any indication that a contract would be an impossibility, instead opting to make “we’ll have to wait and see” types of statements. This will likely continue until an appellate investigation into potential miscarriages of justice has been concluded.[3]

While the club thus continues to dodge and weave, public outrage has been widespread. Over 160,000 (last time I checked) people have signed a petition against him rejoining the club; several of the club’s patrons have resigned or publicly denounced the decision to allow him onto the training grounds; at least one of the club’s shirt sponsors has stated that they will terminate their contract with Sheffield United if the club signs him to a contract.

A number of critical questions immediately jump to mind: When someone has served the punishment defined by society’s laws as sufficient penalty, should that person continue to be subjected to societal punishment? Does it make a difference if the criminal in question is a public figure, or has the potential to become very wealthy? Would the outrage be different if he served 10 years? 15?[4]

So I think this whole situation is a mess and I don’t think that there are any clear, simple answers–partly because I think that for different people, the true source of the problem is different.

As previously noted, Ched has maintained his innocence throughout the ordeal, and still is seeking to overturn the conviction. Upon his release, he issued a video statement in which he apologized for cheating on his fiance, and apologized for letting his supporters down, and expressed his desire to play football again. He did not, however, apologize to the victim or otherwise give any indication that he was contrite over the actions the jury found him guilty of committing. In contrast, he asserted his innocence and his determination to overturn the conviction. As such, it seems possible, or even plausible, that at least a part of the public rage could have been lessened if he confessed.[5] That is, part of this appears to be rooted in the fact that he is not only a convicted rapist, but a convicted rapist who still will not apologize.

I’m not sure what to make of this, I guess. If he committed the crime, then he should confess, apologize, and do whatever else is possible to repair the harm he’s done. A jury found him guilty, and I am inclined–as I must in order to sleep at night–to believe that juries get it right more than they get it wrong. So, his refusal to apologize is a problem for me. And yet, to the extent that he sincerely believes himself to be innocent, I also understand his refusal to confess. As a male, I can scarcely think of anything in the world that would be worse to be wrongly accused of than rape; if that happened to me, I would assert my innocence until the day I died.

Still another question is the role of shaming as a means of punishment or behavior enforcement in society. For example, I share the sentiment of a friend of mine who has been following the development of this story for some time now:

“Part of my concern with this conversation is that I sense some hypocrisy on the liberal side of this debate. For example, I can imagine some of these individuals feeling very uncomfortable with shame being used to enforce social norms in circumstances related to people who are not celebrities, and yet because this individual has the potential to be a ‘hero’, or at least socially praiseworthy, he then becomes someone whom we can shame.”

The short duration of the prison sentence–5 years, and only 2.5 years served–is also a source of some of the anger. Rape is an ugly, horrific crime that violently and permanently harms victims, as well as families, friends, and even communities. It seems that for such permanent, lasting harm, the punishments should also be permanent and lasting. Lifetime sentences are rare in these cases (at least in the USA), though. Through mandatory sex offender registration, some form of punishment does continue beyond incarceration, and depending on the nature of crime, certain additional restrictions may apply–proximity to schools, disqualification from certain types of employment, and so on. Yet, my understanding of such registries and restrictions is that they are meant to protect the public and prevent the convict from recidivism. I am unaware of any intent in the laws to ensure that criminals–sexual criminals or otherwise–are continually punished, that they have no opportunity to become rehabilitated into society or ultimately forge a successful career after completing their legally-determined sentences. If public sentiment determines that a sentence is too short, the problem seems to be with the law–not the offender.

Finally, there is some sense that at least part of the rage boils down to filthy lucre: we are reluctant to admit that we desperately want to continue punishing criminals with shame; we release them from prison and call them reformed and publicly say we want them to contribute to society….but the truth is, we only mean it to the extent that they know their place and make darn well sure that they never rise higher than us. You want to be a bricklayer? GREAT! You want to play sports? GREAT…as long as you stay in beer leagues and never get paid for it, and certainly as long as you never become wealthy. Christ’s seemingly caveat-free commandment to forgive is immensely difficult, even in the best of circumstances. It becomes absurdly difficult when forgiveness all but guarantees that more rays of sunshine will fall on a scumbag’s head than on the victim’s.

This case involves a soccer player in far-off England, and is of ultimately little interest to most, if not all of the readers of this blog. However, the issues and questions it raises are applicable to all members of every community. These questions are also relevant to Latter-day Saints, because as a religious people we preach obedience to the law, moral character, and repentance, but we also preach forgiveness and atonement. Further, there are elements of our religion–cultural or doctrinal–that make us susceptible to contingent forgiveness, public shaming, and envy.

In society and in the Church, there are times when protection of the public, protection of the victim, and even protection of the offender (from recidivism or from retaliation) necessitates continual, ongoing, physical separation of one degree or another. Such cases are the exceptions, however. Look inside of the Church, and you’ll see lots of people, all of them sinners, all of the time. Sometimes we know about these sins, but (thankfully, gloriously) most of the time we don’t. That we don’t know the vast majority of our fellow saints’ sins is a blessing to them and a blessing to us, because it is a check on some of our worst natural tendencies–we can’t unrighteously judge things we don’t know about, after all. But how we–as individuals and as a collective body of believers–deal with the cases we do know about is a measure of the grace within our hearts and within our pews. More often it is the case that any post-incarceration–or post-repentance–punishment of another person is in our own hands.

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[1] League One, where Sheffield United currently plays, is England’s third tier. If it helps, this is is slightly less competitive than MLS here in the United States.
[2] His existing contract expired during his time in prison.
[3] The governing Court authority in the matter has fast-tracked the case for appeal to determine whether any miscarriage of justice took place. I am insufficiently familiar with UK courts to know what likelihood of success Evans has here, or even really what time frame would be reasonable to expect a decision.
[4] Assuming that the criminal’s career prospects were still relevant after that long of a time. In this case, due the short shelf-life of professional athletes, a 15 year sentence would likely make the debate about this specific case moot. Still, if the individual in question were a politician, actor, or other celebrity with a longer career, the question remains.
[5]I say “could have been,” because it would need to have happened early on in his sentence. At this point, any apology or public contrition would almost certainly been seen–rightly or wrongly–as strategic behavior from a self-interested minor celebrity.

Comments

  1. I’m a Philadelphia Eagles fan, so the first thing I thought of when reading this post was the Michael Vick situation. Though Vick’s case seems different in that he was contrite (or at least displayed remorse) and he admitted his wrongs — even though he had initially denied them when dogfighting allegations first arose.

    Add the fact that the Eagles’ coach at the time was Andy Reid, a Latter-day Saint, and Vick was mentored by Tony Dungy, a devout Christian — both of whom had children with troubled lives. It made me think a lot about the narratives of forgiveness, redemption and second chances. Here was a professional organization basically saying, “We remember your sins no more.” (I have it on good authority that a very high-ranking official of the Eagles organization lost a friend over the Vick signing). I believe Reid and Dungy saw their sons in Vick, and saw an opportunity to reach out to a troubled soul and help him stay on the strait and narrow.

    Then my skeptical side thought: “Well, here’s a convicted felon getting his job back, and that job is playing football, and he can run and throw a football well, and football and other sports franchises have repeatedly demonstrated that unless you’re in prison for life, you’ll get a chance to suit up if you make the cut.”

    I was happy for Vick, but I live in a ward that contains a halfway house with many convicted felons trying to get back on their feet. Several have attended our ward, and not a few are honest, reformed men who should have the opportunities to have steady work, a paycheck and contribute to society. Some never get that chance, and for some it will take an excruciatingly long time.

    I understand issues of liability, etc., but I would like to see companies be as quick to give a Regular Joe contrite, reformed convicted felon a chance as quickly as a sports organization with vast resources does.

  2. It is funny that you say ‘This case involves a soccer player in far-off England, and is of ultimately little interest to most, if not all of the readers of this blog.’ I’m from Sheffield and so this is very close to home to me and I am very interested in the outcome. I’m afraid that I don’t share your positive view on the jury getting it right. The whole cult of personality issues relating to famous people makes it very hard for a jury to be impartial. I also think that the number of these rape accusations against professional footballers is worrying, especially when they are false and just for the money from the papers. This was a very tricky case, it raised more questions about consent than rape. The word rape covers such a massive spectrum of offences. Now he is labelled as a rapist it makes him one of the worst deviants in society, but the other man in the case, that slept with the same girl on the same night was judged to have had consensual sex and so is still playing professional football.
    Also since when are footballers held up as role models? Last time I checked our national team was full of men paying prostitutes for sex or had gambling addictions. This does bring into question why he needs to be a example. Footballers are paid for their skills on the football pitch not for what happens at home.
    This whole Chad Evens case has become a witch hunt.

  3. HJ,
    No doubt that there are some really difficult questions in these cases–even before we get into the difficult facts specific to an individual case. I only know about the case what I’ve read in the papers over the past couple of years; given that I work in the legal arena myself, I know that what is reported is rarely, if ever the whole story. Still, I am wont to comment or even come close to opining on any of the merits here.

    Re the jury, that statement applies to all cases, of all types–not necessarily to any one case in particular. Is there a higher error rate in murder cases than in larceny? Sexual assault than in securities fraud? I have no idea, but my guess would be that yes–some types of cases are more of a crap shoot than others, independent of case-specific evidence. Still, I have to believe that the majority–though I won’t say “vast” majority” of juries do reach the right conclusion.

  4. I’ve never stepped foot across the pond, but oddly enough my family cheers for the Blades. A part-member family that used to be in our ward had a grandfather who had played for Sheffield United in the 60s. This family taught us the Greasy Chip Butty Song and to dislike Wednesday. So while all of my kids cheer for different epl teams (why, oh why, did I pick Liverpool?) the one team we can all agree on is the Blades.

    Back to the subject at hand, I’ve often thought that Laman and Lemuel deserve a special ticket to the celestial kingdom just for being dumped on for so long by so many of us. Considering that God says he will remember our sins no longer if we repent, why do we persist in remembering and retelling the sins of others long after they are gone? If as a church we really want others to refrain from judging our people’s bad decisions from long ago (expositer, MMM, etc.), perhaps we should lead by example and let our grudges against Governor Boggs, the Carthage Greys, and so many others finally lapse.

  5. What about admitted racists that refuse to apologize?

  6. “why, oh why, did I pick Liverpool?”

    That’s a very good question!

  7. I am in the UK too so have been aware of this story and many of the issues it raises. Another is that footballers are often looked up to by young boys. A few weeks ago I asked the children in my primary class what they wanted to work as when they grew up. The girls all said which ever job they aspired too – and so did the boys but they all said ‘ I want to be a footballer and ……'(which made me think they were very sensible and level headed). But it does raise the issue of what message does it send boys if a convicted rapist (assuming he is guilty for the sake of this argument) does or does not play again in regards to role models……….

  8. Scott, the simple answer is that I am fond of church history (many Mormons sailed for the states from Liverpool) the Beatles and the expression YNWA. Oh, and I like biting people. If only that could be forgiven.

  9. This is such an important discussion about the culture of punishment in our societies – both secular and religious. I think of people who have done something that the general population considers to be wrong and how long they often suffer because of it. (not only things that are objectively wrong, but especially things that violate nothing but communal norms)

    I believe in appropriate punishment for bad actions, but I also believe in mercy tempering justice, rehabilitation rather than solely punishment, and cessation of punishment upon completion of one’s established time limit. We talk of “paying one’s debt to society”, but we ignore that principle so often in real life when we actually have to honor it – again, both secularly and religiously. We justify it by citing safety or trust concerns, and there are lots of times where safety and trust are important issues, but we too often continue unnecessary, excessive punishment (of many kinds) long after the required debt has been paid.

    My only answer – the only one that works for me – is that forgiveness has to mean something in practical terms for it to mean anything in theoretical, theological, conceptual terms. If it doesn’t mean anything in practical terms, it’s just an empty platitude and doesn’t mean anything at all.

  10. Dave K,

    The Beatles were all Everton fans. Come on, man!

  11. If being a rich/famous celebrity means that your bad decisions have a larger effect on others’ decisions, then perhaps this extra punishment is worthwhile. But I am not sure if it can be proven that the more prominent persons have this extra influence. Perhaps the demand for extra penalty is part envy. Hard to say. I understand a similar logic is applied in church disciplinary councils where more prominent members (leaders, etc.) are more likely to face heavier punishments for their serious transgressions than others.

    Ultimately, my view of social norms is that they emerge to help guide behavior in a way that generally help members of the community at large even at some cost to individuals in that community. So there is a kind of social efficiency. All communities must have norms like these, though not all are equally efficient, and one that is efficient today might not be best for society next decade. Perhaps this extra punishment for celebrities is just the way that has emerged in our modern, media-driven society where transgressions make the nightly news. If so, it might be here to stay as these stories break sooner and sooner and with larger audiences.

    But I agree there is an inherent tension that will not go away. You even see this in the scriptures. Forgive others 70×7, but don’t let unworthy people take the sacrament. Forgiveness is a divine principle, but community maintenance is also necessary to advance the collective endeavors of the Church.

  12. MM–
    Excellent comment, and I want to think it over a little bit more, but also add one thought right away:

    One of the most interesting elements here is that I don’t think that you can legitimately say that Ched Evans was a celebrity at the time of the trial. Obviously, he had _some degree_ of celebrity, or otherwise no one would have bothered to report on his case, but it’s not like he was a household name, or a person that any young footballers without a personal connection would be likely to look up to. What IS known, and why it became a big deal, is because he was “a player for Sheffield United.” Given the middling performances he had in a higher division earlier in his career, there is definitely some question over whether he would have “made it big” or not. Think of him maybe as a D-list actor–you kinda sorta recognize their face, because they were in that one episode of Friends, but can’t recall their name or what else they were in.

  13. It’s the prosperity gospel at work. I have a friend who was continually stifled in his search for gainful employment, education, and acceptance because of a non-violent felony in his past. For most, his hard life in the projects probably felt just. Everywhere he turned he was confronted with his past blocking his future. When someone guilty (or convicted) of a similar or more heinous crime drives nice cars, buys plastic surgery, and never has to hold his hat in his hand while asking for help, how can we be assured he is constantly reminded of his guilt?

  14. I’ve always wondered whether there’s a Liverpool supporter behind the fact that the Tabernacle Choir sings “You’ll Never Walk Alone” so much.

    That said, allez allez allez ohhh

  15. Allez allez allez ohhh!

  16. robrunning, more likely it’s a function of the choir director’s admiration for Roger’s and Hammerstein. But it would be awesome to see the Choir sing at Anfield.

  17. Jesus: [Read Dave K’s comment]

    Jesus: [Wept]

  18. I really love the musical, Les Miserables. A similar question is posed in the unfortunate situation of Jean Valjean as he is released from prison after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread.

    He soon learns that prison was just the beginning and the real punishment from his fellowmen would be unending. However, he catches a lucky break from a church leader and he was able gain redemption by serving others (and therefore, God) the rest of his life.

    I think that time heals all wounds and most people can see when someone has truly changed his life.