Punishment and Forgiveness

What's the appropriate punishment for a man who -- when he was 14 -- killed a man? When this man, Kenneth, was sentenced to life with parole, back in 1989, the ordinary Missouri practice was to parole murderers after about 12 years served. Soon the Legislature set a 15-years-served base requirement. Then the Parole Board became much more stringent in its practice, tending to grant paroles to older inmates, 50- and 60-somethings.

Kenneth is in the honor wing of a maximum security prison. Lifers go to maximum security; when they get a parole date, they are quickly moved to medium security. Kenneth has a job, serving geriatric inmates, and he likes it. But as a convicted murderer, he has no future in health care. At his last two parole hearings, prison staff recommended his release, but, according to the hearing officer, the victim's family objected.

Punishment is expensive. If Kenneth had been released when he was 29, after serving 15 years, he'd be a tax-paying family man today. Murder is the rarest of all recidivist crimes. Instead, Missouri is paying about $18,000 a year to keep him locked up. (The cost is so low because we don't pay our corrections officers much.)

And then there's forgiveness. My reading of Scripture tells me to welcome Kenneth back into society, help him find work, introduce him to good women, provide encouragement and guidance. And I will do that for Kenneth, if he ever gets out. But Kenneth is one of 30,000 in Missouri.

The NAACP is having its convention in St. Louis and the airport is full of welcome banners, stating that the United States has 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of its prisoners.

How long do we punish people and when do we get to the forgiveness part?

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here