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Easier to punish than to give a second chance

Updated: August 27, 2013 9:00AM



Like you, I had never heard of Millikin University in Decatur; heck, I’ve barely heard of Decatur. If you asked me to speculate what kind of place Decatur might be, I’d imagine it a smaller, less flashy version of Peoria, were such a thing possible. If it’s actually Golden-Age-Athens-in-Modern-Day-Illinois, my apologies. I didn’t know.

After a Texas newspaper revealed that a longtime psychology professor at Millikin murdered his family in 1967, my reaction was, it had to be a shock for the school. But not knowing the professor, the school, nor the town, I shrugged and skimmed the story.

Initially.

Last week, however, I carefully read Becky Schlikerman’s piece about it, start to finish, because the headline, “School standing by prof who killed family in 1967,” conveyed something unexpected. I’m not sure if we live in a particularly timid time, or it’s just me growing older and even more cynical, but that seemed unusual. Organizations tend to take the path of least resistance, and do whatever necessary to make bad publicity go away. While this is less true in academia, where the illusions of intellectual freedom breed latitude, that indulgence doesn’t extend to self-confessed killers.

Yet the school backed its employee.

My gut reaction was “Good for them.” Part of the reason why people are so afraid to admit they have mental illness is that too many of us still view psychiatric disorders as a some kind of scam. Forget that a court found James St. James not guilty by reason of insanity for killing his father, mother and older sister. We also easily dismiss what juries decide. Gullible dupes. We forget that lots of people get ill and some get better and are entitled to a second chance at life.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Toward the end of the article, a comment by Macon County Sheriff Thomas Schneider stood out: “If you kill your family, you deserve to never walk free in our society.” I tracked down his full statement, which continues: “Although I believe in redemption I can’t find redemption or rehabilitation when it involves killing three innocent people.”

Hard to argue that. But argue it I will. Is it the number that puts a felon beyond redemption? Three victims equals no redemption. Or killing anybody at all? I assume that one murder is too many, also is unforgivable.

I would suggest that we focus on murder, on the extremes, to cover an awkward truth — as a society, we tend not to forgive

anything. You don’t need to kill anyone to find yourself beyond redemption. Almost any crime will do. A man can be forced to register for the rest of his life as a sexual offender for an offense which, in the grand scheme of crime, is relatively minor — being caught with his underage girlfriend when he’s just a little older. Politicians like to get in the press loading punishments on criminals, forgetting that most felons, even most murderers, eventually get out of jail. And then what?

We need to work on forgiveness. America is hooked on punishing; we put a greater percentage of citizens in jail than almost any other country on Earth. Part of it is racial indifference — we put black folks in jail, where we don’t have to think about them.

Which is deceptive, because we will have to think about them when they get back out. We need to realize that most who go to jail come out worse off and returned to a society that cares about them even less than when they went in, which is saying a lot.

The urge to punish comes naturally. I’m not holding Sheriff Schneider up to ridicule — heck, he issued a statement, which shows courage of his convictions, and is echoing what most think. There is a genuine dilemma here. On one hand, it’s hard enough to get a job when you’re not a felon, and if we want people to turn their lives around, we should allow them to shed their pasts and rehabilitate themselves. On the other, those who are already criminals tend to commit more crimes, and if you’re hiring a thief, don’t you have the right to know about it?

Then again, one reason convicted felons go on to commit more crimes is that we make it so hard for them to do anything else.

That’s why this Decatur case is worth remembering. Because James St. James killed his family, got better, started anew, and then went on to a useful life helping students.

“Millikin University stands by Dr. St. James because he has served Millikin students well for 27 years” university president Patrick White wrote to the student body.

Because he had been mentally ill, St. James got the chance to start over without the stigma of his past. Most criminals aren’t so lucky. But imagine if they were. We’re trained to condemn and punish. We need to at least consider the chance of redemption.

Email: nsteinberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @NeilSteinberg



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