Michael Vick is a man who generates controversy without even trying. His horrific abuse of animals cost him his job, his fortune, and public good will. After serving a nineteen month sentence for a dogfighting conviction the NFL took him back, a move that did not sit well with many who felt Vick should have faced a lifetime ban. Then President Obama weighed in and praised the Philadelphia Eagles for giving Vick a second chance, and once again the opinion gates ushered a torrent of scorn and criticism, leveled both at the NFL and the president.
But, like it or not, the president was right to praise the league for giving Vick a second chance. That is of course if this country is one that still believes in rehabilitation as an essential component of a criminal justice system.
President Obama has a long history of supporting rehabilitation as a means of reducing recidivism, though it is a position that does not get a lot of attention. And his point in praising the NFL league was to simply acknowledge that all odds are stacked against prisoners upon their release. Prison overcrowding and a lack of functional prison-to-work programs means that for many one mistake will literally destroy any chance of functional participation in society.
And for a country that incarcerates young black men at three times the rate of any other population, this is a significant problem.
Turning that fact around will not be easy, particularly given the fact that incarceration is big business. We’ve already seen how private prisons drove policy decisions in Pennsylvania and Arizona. Currently as a nation we construct more prisons than we do universities and corrections is far better funded than education. Mandatory minimum laws, despite a lack of consensus and support by law enforcement, all but guarantee our prisons will remain full and that business will be good.
The president’s comments require a bit of nuance, and sadly most Americans resist nuance at any given time. The comments require a public be willing to hate the crime but not the criminal and they require that we collectively embrace the notion that no human being is a lost cause.
To embrace the second chance is by no means to forget, or even forgive, Vick’s actions. Like I said, the president’s statements demand nuance. But those statements reflect a philosophy of the nature of criminal corrections that is beyond simple punishment, and embraces a more hopeful and progressive understanding of the role and responsibility society has to our fallen.
It’s nice to hear an elected official embrace the idea of rehabilitation and not run from accusations of being “soft” on crime. Progresssives in particular should support the president here, given the deep historical ties between progressivism and criminal justice reform.
Let’s hope these comments start a conversation long overdue in this country, particularly as states face crushing budget burdens and a crumbling corrections infrastructure. Michael Vick is certainly a lucky man, but he doesn’t have to be the only one.
photo courtesy of Ed Yourdon via Flickr