When I say the word “criminal” what picture do you paint in your mind?
Is it a felon behind prison bars?
A thief, sneaking into a home; perhaps at the store, slipping something into their purse?
Maybe you see something worse.
Perhaps you see the face of someone from your memories.
Regardless of who you see, or who you’ve created, I’m sure you have a long list of what that person is.
Untrustworthy, bad, evil, selfish, sick, terrible, hopeless, worthless and some would say much worse things.
Perhaps you’ve thought of some yourself.
Perhaps you think it of yourself.
But here is something that I believe everyone should consider.
Someone with a conviction is rarely so awful.
They are simply the few who were caught making a foolish decision.
Imagine now, this label of criminal, on someone you know and love.
Someone you trust.
Yes, yes, I’m sure your sister, mother, girlfriend, wife or best friend hasn’t murdered anyone.
But what if she stole? What if she was selling drugs?
I know it may be hard, but pretend.
What would be your first question?
Mine would be, is it true?
And if it was, why?
From such a simple question can come the strangest of things.
A reason. Maybe not the best reason. But a reason.
She stole because her son needed the medicine.
She was selling drugs because she was about to lose her home.
You can’t understand, “I would have helped you.”
She didn’t want to be a burden, perhaps it’s another excuse.
And that’s all it took.
Simply a bad decision made from the illusion of a good reason.
But here is where the problem starts.
She is now a criminal.
She spends her time in jail.
Decides she wants to do better.
Thinks to herself, “When I leave I’m going to find a job again.”
Chances are high that she’s lost the one she had.
“And I’ll go back to school so I can get a better job. So I can provide a good life for my kids.”
The system has worked! She wants to change, do better!
The first application.
There’s the tug of doubt. Is it because of that? That one mistake?
She keeps trying and, finally, an interview!
It goes off without a hitch.
She’s offered the job.
Passes her drug test and then.
Due to your background check….
And it’s likely that another foolish decision happens.
Now I know some of you may be rolling your eyes.
I get it.
This isn’t always the case.
Perhaps you can’t believe that it would ever be the case.
But it does happen and not just for shoplifting.
The truth is, people are foolish.
We all make mistakes.
Thankfully, not all of them are illegal.
Thankfully, not everyone is caught; because I’ve meant people who tell me how lucky they are.
A jail guard who said she had helped someone shoplift before.
A mother I didn’t stop when I saw her stuffing cloths for her kids into her purse. CPS could have easily taken her children for that.
Perhaps you know of situations yourself.
Perhaps you are that lucky person.
“There are places that hire people with convictions.” You say.
True, but the list is very short.
The opportunities in those companies, difficult to come by.
The work, rarely pays well.
What I want people to be open minded about is that many people with criminal histories want to work.
They want to be able to take care of themselves and their families.
To set goals, make career plans, earn a better life, and chase the American dream.
Of course there are exceptions to everything.
But how can criminals be expected to become anything else if that is the only thing we will let them be?
How can they become the productive citizens we expect them to be when they are encouraged to repeat their mistakes?
Of course it’s still their choice. But we play a much larger role in it than you think.
So please. Be open minded to forgiveness. To second chances. To hope.
Be open minded that people make foolish decisions, that not everyone is truly guilty for the crime they have been labeled for.
But most of all, be wise to look past labels of every kind and judge a person by who they are. Not by who they were or by what someone tells you they are.