“I’m not a criminal. I’m a good person.”

Someone on Quora asked a question:

Is there supposed to be a disconnect between law abiding citizens and released criminals despite all criminals were once law abiding citizens?

Here’s the answer that popped out of my brain:

 I don’t think there’s supposed to be a complete separation. But a lot of people want there to be. Like so many things in our world, we’ve made a binary out of what is really a sliding scale. On one end of the spectrum would be the worst law breakers: brutal murderers, serial rapists, and stock swindlers who wreck the economy. And on the other side would be your grandma, a saintly woman who’s never jaywalked in her life or removed the tag from a mattress (or so she says).

Between those two points is the wide spectrum of humanity where most of us live.

I’d say most of us think of ourselves as being on the law-abiding side rather than on the criminal side of things, even if we’ve occasionally run a red light or snuck into a movie. We may even have done something seriously bad at least once in our lives, maybe in our youth: stealing some gum from the store, taking a little money from the drawer at work, spraying graffiti on a park bench, having sex with someone who was probably 18, taking a wallet that someone left next to their seat on a bus, driving home a little buzzed, earning a little extra money for college selling weed, etc.

Or maybe we just lost it that one day, when everything was shitty and people just pushed us to the brink. We’re good people! And yet there was that one time we slashed someone’s tires, or we posted naked photos of a cheating ex online and later took them down. Or we had road rage and found ourselves trying to run some asshole off the road. We may even have slapped someone, perhaps in a fit of anger, or socked the shit out of some asshole at the bar when we were a little too drunk.

And then, of course, there’s the violence people sometimes commit against the ones they love the most: battery, abuse, and sexual assault. These are so bad that almost no one thinks they could show up among their friends or family or in their own relationships, until they are the victims … or the perpetrators.

At some point, while you were reading the above paragraphs of increasingly bad illegality, you may have stopped nodding your head in sympathy as you reached the level of criminality past which your sympathies will not cross. And I think that’s normal and healthy for a spectrum which has the worst of the worst at one end.

But we need to be realistic that our sympathies are not objective, and can radically shift towards that end if the criminal deed was committed by our child or our sister or our friend, or even by people who look more like us–or is us. 

Whether we’ve been jaywalking or slashing someone’s tires or even committing violence, often there’s a part of our brains that says:

Okay, yesterday I crossed a line. But it was a one-time thing. That’s not who I am. I am a good person. I am not a criminal.

And to assure ourselves that we are good people, we look around us and try to measure ourselves against the bad people, the people who didn’t just have one bad day or a few youthful indiscretions, but who really meant it when they were doing bad things.

Incarceration, then, often becomes the dividing line.

Whether someone was convicted and did time becomes our shorthand, our litmus test to decide who is us, the generally good people, and who is them, the people who do bad things. Because clearly they do bad things so often that they finally got the punishment they deserve.

The danger with this methodology, though, is that staying out of jail is a lot more about luck than skill, about not being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

And this is kind of true even for those people who have never snuck into a movie and never driven over the speed limit. Some of us are lucky enough to have lives where we can live quite comfortably within the law, and some of us have fewer options.

Some of us were raised with more money, so there was never the temptation to steal a pack of gum or take a little out of the till.

Some of us never had the kind of hunger, addiction, or anxiety that creates crisis situations. Because we live more comfortable lives, materially and mentally, we don’t spend as many of our days exasperated, pushed past the limits of politeness, rushing to get somewhere on time, or snapping at our loved ones, all of which can make it harder to avoid bad decisions.

Some of us are more likely never to have to make the choice between committing violence and being the victim of violence, or of living in a neighborhood where the only way to be safe is to band together with our more violent peers.

Some of us are more likely to have mental health resources we can turn to when we need them.

Some of us have a network of family, and life partners, and good friends to pull us aside and say, “Hey, I’m worried about the path you’re on.”

Some of us are more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt, to not have our cars searched or our financial transactions checked or our girls’ night out transformed into a night in the drunk tank. We’re less likely to be arrested, less likely to be brought to trial, less likely to be given time or denied parole than if someone else committed that same crime.

Some of us are less likely to be sent to prison for crimes we’re innocent of, whether because we are falsely convicted, or because we were pressured to plead guilty for economic reasons. (Let’s not forget that DNA evidence has exonerated hundreds of prisoners since the technology got started in 1989, and has prevented tens of thousands of suspects from being tried falsely. And false accusations are not distributed equally.)

And of course ending up with the shorter side of the societal stick does not excuse stealing or murdering or running people off the road. But when we look at someone who has been in jail or prison, I think we need to do an honest self-assessment:.

If I were walking in their shoes, would I have done any better? And can I really judge that person for being in jail for something not so different from things I, or my loved ones, have done in the past?

For me, I know I have a line in the sand that I do not cross, and that is that I will always feel a disconnect between myself and anyone who has been to prison for being a spouse abuser, an active pedophile, a serial murderer or a rapist. Even putting myself into someone else’s shoes, even if they had a much harder life than me, I feel I could never be capable of brutality of those kinds.

And yet there’s a part of me that knows even pedophiles were often abused as children, and that people don’t become murderers unless they have deep psychological scars. As horrible as those crimes are, again, the difference between me and a sociopath is that I was not born a sociopath. I’ll never have a pedophile’s compulsions or an alcoholic’s illness. I’ll never experienced the kind of pain and humiliation as a child that would make me want to lash out at the world. Can I really hate someone for succumbing to temptations that I’ll never have to worry about?

I don’t know what the solution is. Obviously our safety depends on our having some kind of solution. And we’re not obligated to befriend those who have done terrible things or who make us feel unsafe. But pretending that all convicted criminals are some other species of human, and putting up roadblocks so that none of them can reintegrate back into society, get good jobs, or vote? Those solutions seem to fall short of justice and fairness.

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