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On Crimes Atoned For.

13 January 2016

I’ve done some pretty horrible things in my life. Things that some people find unforgivable. Things that the law punishes and society condemns. I’m an alcoholic. And I used alcohol to let me commit acts and crimes that harmed others, endangered others, and cost my community and our legal system a lot of money. I did that though overt acts, and through neglect. I’ve harmed both property and persons.

I have also complied with all legal judgments against me. I’ve repaid money where I’ve owed money. I’ve spent a night in jail. I’ve attended mandatory classes and adhered to restrictions from driving for the duration of a suspended license. In sobriety, I have made or offered amends to everyone I’ve harmed that I can remember. I have changed my behavior. I have repeated none of these offenses in nearly eight years.

My question is: how long is it appropriate for uninvolved third parties to publicly use my criminal and amoral past against me? That’s not intended to be a loaded question. For me, the answer is not “never”. An hour after I sobered up? A month? A year? Ten? For some time at least, it is reasonable for people to consider me an increased risk, a threat. When criminals feel reformed, we want that time to start instantly. It doesn’t and it shouldn’t. But I don’t know the answer to when it becomes inappropriate.

I’ve written before that I don’t think that employers should be barred from considering addiction to be an increased risk, and that caution with respect to addicts in recovery is reasonable and should not be considered stigma. I stand by that.

But isn’t it a bit sleazy for someone with no personal relationship to either me, or to the events, to publicly call me out for them, years later? To impugn my employer, who may know nothing of them, for hiring me? Certainly, I don’t think that person is committing any slander – I really did do those things. But aren’t they violating a fundamental precept of the American philosophy of justice? That crimes atoned for are now past. That criminals can be reformed and should not suffer illimitable consequences for acts the law has adjudicated?

Can crimes be atoned for? Can immoral acts be set behind us? Or are we forever bound to them, and do we deserve to have their consequences follow us for the rest of our lives? Are there classes of immorality that are unexpungeable? Because I can promise, I have more to be ashamed of than I have ever written here. I am worse than you know. Does my repentance and reform mean anything?

If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t. But if it does, then why are we polishing the pillories every time we discover the atoned-for indiscretion of another? It may not be wrong – I don’t know – but it’s sleazy. And I think it runs counter to the grand ethic of American justice.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Aimee permalink
    13 January 2016 09:26

    That sounds nasty. I’m sorry.

    • 13 January 2016 09:30

      Nothing is actually happening to me. This is hypothetical in response to a professor who committed sexual harassment 10 years ago, followed through with all required punishments and corrective action, and there’s been no indication he’s repeated any inappropriate behavior. Now his former acts are in the news again because a legislator highlighted them as part of a (very good, I think) piece of introduced legislation.

  2. 13 January 2016 11:21

    Interesting to think about – like you say in most democracies we have a justice system that argues innocence unless guilt can be proven beyond reasonable doubt and then reformation following punishment. But there does seem to be things where that is ignored. For example under the UK Equality Act if an employee was to state to their employer that they had an eating disorder then they cannot be explicitly discriminated against in work pay, opportunities etc. it would be illegal as under the definitions in the act that person would likely qualify as disabled and the employer asked to make “reasonable adjustments”. However explicitly excluded from the definition of disability in that act is alcoholism and addiction to narcotics. Why? Therefore if I apply for a job or tell my employer I am an alcoholic I have no recourse under that law if they fire me.

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