Contact theSOPAbout theSOPSupport theSOPWritersEditorsManaging Editors
theSOP logo
Published:September 25th, 2006 10:31 EST
Guilt Or Penitence

Guilt Or Penitence

By Sean Stubblefield

Common belief is that, in the American legal system, a person is considered innocent until proven guilty. But could the true attitude of our “justice” system be inferred from our tendency to categorize someone as guilty or not guilty? A subtle, subliminal, subtextual phrasing which seems inherently prejudicial, as opposed to saying guilty or innocent (or even innocent or not innocent/ innocent or guilty). Not even “unless” proven guilty. Until proven guilty, as if it is pre-eminent assumption or already a foregone conclusion. Language influences how we frame our conceptions. Here, we say one thing, while implying another. We become two-faced, and two fisted in our so-called justice.

It is a prevaricating, deceptive, delusional euphemism confusing or disguising the truth of our actual sentiment, if we read between the lines. We are a predominately suspicious, spiteful, cynical— and therefore litigious and vengeful-- society.


Despite pretenses and proclamations to the contrary, our judicial system— or rather the majority of people who participate in it-- isn’t really interested in justice, it wants and enacts revenge. It doesn’t seek to correct the source or cause of crimes, it intends only to accuse and punish the guilty. Judicial: the very name, its etymology, can be suggestive of accusation, denunciation and criticism. Judge. Judgmental.

Judge not, lest ye be judged… as the Bible tells us. And something else about casting the first stone. Not that I’m a Christian, mind you. I merely point out the discrepancy, the contradictions of methodology in the principles of our culture. A pretender, our plastic ideals are our demise. The word “judge” tends to be defined in negative affectations, it’s a cultural meme loitering in our collective mindset, percolating throughout our subconscious. I’m sure there are lawyers and judges and law enforcement officers/ agents who do care about implementing actual justice, but the legal system itself is not accommodating to it, because it is vulnerable and susceptible to the machinations and inadequacies of those who engage in it. Because our society is not amenable to justice, as long as that sense of justice consists of “eye for an eye” and “blood for blood”.

A great many among us are usually petty, selfish and inconsiderate. Too many of us too often take satisfaction and pleasure in another’s suffering and misfortune, especially when we have been hurt, offended or are miserable.

My impression is that our society doesn’t even understand what justice means, typically confusing it with revenge and punishment, as if these terms are synonymous.

We confuse the word of the law with the intent of the law, arbitrarily treating “The Law” ™ as inviolable and inflexible sort of Gospel.

In the court room, juries and judges often forget or are instructed to forget— assuming they are ever even aware, that they are the arbiters and interpreters of law. While in the court rooms, it is within their power, and responsibility, to determine the meaning, propriety and applicability of laws. Just because it is law does not make it right, fair, appropriate, or necessary… nor absolute. Let’s remember that just calling something a crime does not make it wrong or immoral.


And to make matters worse, mainstream society, in its usual ignorantly stubborn propensity and mob mentality, does not care to absolve or sympathize with its convicted criminals… not even ex-convicts, regardless of circumstances leading up to and following the crime and prison sentence. An all-purpose, all encompassing Guilt is generally assumed, without context or mitigation; a condemnation fueled more by a public’s fearful imagination and ignorance than reality. The pall of Guilt follows ex-cons like a shadow, a haunting ghost. A society may be judged in how it treats its criminals. Criminals are commonly treated as a two-dimensional stereotype, instead of people. We see the label more than or instead of the individual, and expect certain behavior in accordance with that label. We make them criminals in name, if not in fact. The esteemed philosopher Nietzsche noted that, “The one who is punished is no longer the one who did the deed. He is always the scapegoat.”

He also realized that, “Our crime against criminals is that we treat them as villains.”

It doesn’t really matter to most people what crime he or she did, or why he or she did it, or that their time was served, or if they have changed, or if they are remorseful, or if their crime was an aberration for them, an isolated incident or accident, or if they were wrongly accused or inappropriately punished, or what they experienced in prison. Our society disavows responsibility for and fellowship with ex-cons, both in the role it plays in creating criminals and in what to do with them after the fact. Implausible deniability. We sweep them under the rug, pretending they don’t exist and presume the problem solved… and then wonder why we keep tripping over this growing, inexplicable lump. So we try to vacuum up the extraneous dirt when the bag is full, or absent. 

For us to dismiss them, it is merely enough that they are labeled a convict, that we casually and conveniently label them as such. Well, convenient, perhaps, for us non-criminals— at least in the short term, or so it seems; certainly not convenient for the ex-convicts. EX-convicts, as in they are not convicts anymore.


Yes, we should be cautious, wary and hesitant in dealing with ex-cons, but without succumbing to paranoia or hysteria. And maybe, depending on their crime, their post prison life shouldn’t be easy, maybe their post prison difficulties are just an extension or part of the consequences of their crime. But that need not mean we must always deliberately stack the deck against them, preventing or inhibiting them to make a new life for themselves. How can they prove or improve themselves if not given the chance, an opportunity to do so?

Oh, we can’t dare give them the benefit of the doubt. We don’t bother empathizing with them, putting ourselves in their shoes— metaphorically speaking— to see and understand their perspective. And perhaps forgive their transgressions… assuming contrition and rehabilitation, or even possibility of a one time offense or wrongful accusation.

We are reluctant to realize and recognize our role in hurting them and potentially motivating them to pursue crime as their only practical alternative to survive, to live. Because we don’t understand human nature— and therefore justice, and because we are insensitive to other people’s problems, and because we ignore the fact that everything and everyone is connected and affecting each other, we enable and contribute to crime.

We hear the words “prison” or “convict” or “felon” and we automatically, unthinkingly put up walls and close doors. A convict phobia arises, an irrational fear. The connotations of the “convict” concept befuddle our myopic minds with images of all manner of misdeeds and debauchery. If he’s been in prison, the “thinking” goes, then he must be the worst kind of scum, capable of any who-knows-what atrocities. He can’t-- and shouldn’t be-- trusted, with anything ever again.

So they are forever branded with the stigma of a Scarlet Letter; essentially and effectively punishing them twice, or penalizing them indefinitely. Such an attitude or approach is akin judging them in a court of public opinion.

The legal and “legitimate” avenues and access for ex-convicts are severely limited, restricted--- particularly for employment and housing. 

This blatantly misguided and uninformed discrimination is unfair, it is wrong, it is stupid.

And those married to these ex-cons are often de facto treated as “guilty by association”, in a manner of speaking, because they also suffer when their spouse is denied certain liberties or considerations… punished for a crime they did not commit. Furthermore, the spouse of a convict may even be similarly disdained or snubbed by mere proximity… for having the audacity, foolishness or presumed delinquency to be involved with a convict in anyway.


Many people object to their taxes being used to, as they call it, pay for the education or training of criminals, claim that doing so is basically rewarding them for committing their crime. But these people are looking at this the wrong way. By educating and rehabilitating criminals, are we not making our society a safer and better place?

This is a win-win scenario, benefiting us and them.

How is this any different from our paying for the services of police or firemen or teachers? Isn’t this something you can get behind, something you are willing to support and pay for, gladly? In a Capitalist culture, anyway.

Of course, that requires that criminals actually be genuinely rehabilitated… rather than simply shuffled around or stuffed in a box for the duration of their prison sentence, idiotically and irresponsibly spitting them back into society the same as or worse than they went in. And you can teach a person a new skill, or impart knowledge, and that’s well and fine… but if you don’t reconcile or remove their reasons or inclinations to do whatever got them into prison… then you are doing these convicts— and society— an injustice.

If you only deal with the symptom and not the cause, the underlying problem still exists.

You have the nerve to call prison a Correctional Facility. But if you don’t actually correct them, their criminal problem… then you haven’t really fixed or resolved anything.

And when you throw them back out into the world with no prospects, no resources and no recourse, then they may be tempted and encouraged to return to the scene of the crime, so to speak. How negligently irresponsible of us. How preposterously foolish.