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Why I changed my mind on having second chances at life after prison

I am no specialist on criminal justice, and my own instincts, based partly on close personal connections to several murder victims over the course of my lifetime, lean towards the hard line on matters of violent crime in particular. But something I saw in a high security District of Columbia Correctional Facility nonetheless had a major impact on my outlook.

Georgetown University professor Marc Howard invited me to address a group of several dozen prisoners who are enrolled in the Georgetown Prison Scholars Program last month to discuss American national security policy inside the jail. That same afternoon, Marc had taught a lesson to a group of students, half from Georgetown University and half incarcerated individuals from the facility, as part of his course for credit on criminal justice and prisons. I had not seen so many people in orange suits in one place since the last time I visited an American military jail in Afghanistan, where members of the Taliban made up the majority of the detainees. My experience in the District of Columbia was much more uplifting because of the attitudes and aptitudes of the individuals with whom I spoke.

I gave a talk designed to last 30 minutes explaining how the Department of Defense has shifted its main emphasis in military planning from the broader Middle East to strategic competition with China and Russia. The intention had been to take a few questions, then get home in time for another Washington Nationals playoff game. But 15 minutes in, I got the first of what became at least 20 questions from the group, probably more than I have ever had in recent years in any event held at the Brookings Institution or in the college classes that I teach. The questions were also extremely informed, which is particularly impressive since many of the individuals had been incarcerated before having finished high school.

Is the United States now catching up with China and Russia in developing hypersonic weapons? What exactly did President Putin declare about threatening the United States with nuclear attack? How do think tanks influence the policy process? Or do you just write for the interests and reactions of other think tanks? Where does cyberspace rank in our list of the most pressing American national security challenges? How could a war over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea actually erupt between China, Japan, and the United States? Is the $700 billion annual defense budget not big enough for us? What is the government going to do about our $1 trillion federal deficit anyway? How serious is the damage to our American alliances that has happened under President Trump?

Just as much as the sophistication of the questions, I was struck by the attitude, temperament, and courtesy of the incarcerated students, many of whom were serving multiple decade terms for violent crime including murder. Most people in Washington and around the country are quite courteous when I give talks, but the warmth and gratitude I felt from the prisoners was special. I admired the passion they had in the discussion, clearly reflecting a decision on the part of many, if not most, in the room to use their many free hours for study and serious intellectual pursuit.

Marc told me that such a constructive attitude often takes time for a new prisoner to attain, and may not materialize for years, if at all, depending on the situation. But his view is that many more incarcerated citizens are capable of such a change in outlook than not. That does not mean every violent criminal who expresses some remorse or who seems a changed man or woman should soon go free. But sentencing reform, and a second chance, may be worth considering more often for certain types of crime.

Beyond nonviolent crimes, two other categories stand out, which are violent crimes committed by a juvenile and felony murder where one is punished for the worst action that is committed by someone else in a group, even if one did not plan or support the murder. My outlook about the possibility of redemption, or at least of forgiveness and a second chance to contribute to society after serving time in prison, changed heavily after I met this surprising and inspiring group of Americans.

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow and the director of research at the Brookings Institution in Washington and an author whose latest book is “The Senkaku Paradox: Risking Great Power War over Small Stakes.”

Tags Crime Government Incarceration Justice Policy Prison Reform Violence

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