Besides being a contender for the Most Valuable Player and the quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles, a playoff team (the Eagles lost 16-21 to the Green Bay Packers), Vick is perhaps America’s best known ex-convict. Vick was sent to prison for orchestrating a gruesome dogfighting ring that resulted in the torture and execution of dozens of animals. He served a two-year federal prison term, and upon his release was given the opportunity to sign with the Philadelphia Eagles. This year Vick has played with tremendous poise and leadership, and has expressed genuine remorse for his previous behavior.
In other words, Michael Vick is the poster boy for the second chance.
Who does Michael Vick represent? His mentor, former coach Tony Dungy put the issue this way:
“I’ve visited a lot of prisons. It’s something that I do. And I know that there are a lot of young men, especially African-American young men, who need a chance. Who made a mistake. Who did something wrong. Who had a problem but are looking to bounce back. That’s what I’ve always been concerned about. Not just for Michael Vick. But for hundreds of guys that I’ve talked to.”
The trend in the United States over the previous three decades has been a move away from second chances and a move toward stiffer sentences for virtually all crimes – violent and non-violent. The United States now far surpasses all developed countries in the world in the number of people it incarcerates: Approximately 1 in 100 adults in the U.S. is behind bars, and 1 in 3 young black men without a high school degree. In 2008, U.S. states spent $49 billion on corrections.
The rise in American incarceration has serious implications for many dimensions of social inequality – from the ability of ex-convicts to get jobs, to the wellbeing of children and families, to the allocation of child support payments. In a future post, I plan to discuss these issues at much greater length.
The Michael Vick story comes at an unusual moment of opportunity to revisit some of the flawed criminal justice policies in the United States. State governments with strapped budgets have increasingly sought ways to cut spending on criminal justice by reducing their incarcerated populations either through sentencing alternatives and early release programs, and also by curbing the practice of closely monitoring offenders for small parole violations after release. In California, the state that locks up the largest number of people, the department of justice has faced chronic overcrowding, with associated problems like disease outbreaks and rioting. The state is now seeking ways to reduce its inmate population by as many as 40,000 people.
In opinion polls from the Pew Trust, the public is strongly in favor of cutting criminal justice spending as a mechanism to balance state budgets. The public is also generally receptive to using rehabilitation and diversion programs in place of stiff sentencing laws, with three quarters of all respondents in the survey favoring reducing prison time for non-violent offenders deemed to be low risk. The public’s attitudes about incarceration for those who have committed violent offenses are much more ambivalent, and in focus groups, respondents are in favor of refocusing prison efforts on locking away violent or career criminals (we can expect a hardening of these attitudes in the aftermath of the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords). The public opinion data suggest two ways to frame the incarceration issue for the public – in terms of public safety and in terms of public budgets.
The Michael Vick story does not entirely fit into either of these narratives, but still could be rhetorically and politically useful for showing a positive role model for rehabilitation. Not everyone in prison can look forward to a multi-million dollar job offer after they reenter society, nor can most people in prison be trained to throw perfect spirals on the run. But many, if not most people currently behind bars could benefit from some rehabilitation and job training programs. (Here’s a very thoughtful review of the reentry problem written by Bruce Western). The long-term willingness of American society to embrace a shift away from incarceration, and the willingness of politicians to take a political risk moving away from the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” rhetoric depends critically on the ability to convince society that today’s offenders will be successful in society in the future.