(Please read her post, not just the NYT article…)
by Giselle Minoli:
How do we judge one another? Let me count the ways...
Once upon a time a 23-year old man named Shon R. Hopwood decided that the provident thing to do with his young life was to rob banks with the assistance of some sort of weaponry. He was caught and he was sentenced - to 10 years in prison by Judge Richard G. Kopf, who said of Hopwood, "My gut told me that Hopwood was a punk — all mouth, and very little else.”
'Cept that Hopwood was a lot of something else entirely. He was, in fact, the sort of person who has the capacity to change his life and, ultimately, to redeem himself in front of the very profession that had sentenced him to a life as a "punk." We all know how that goes...once a punk, always a punk, right?
This post is not about Hopwood, who so assiduously applied himself to the study of the Law in prison that he successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case of a fellow prisoner (argued by a professional lawyer - they won), got out of prison, became a paralegal and went to law school on a scholarship funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. No, this post is not about that remarkable story.
Nor is this post about Judge Kopf, who, upon hearing of Hopwood's redemption admitted, "My viscera was wrong. Hopwood proves that my sentencing instincts suck.” It's not about him because good people make just as many mistakes in judgement as "punks," and aren't above admitting they are wrong when they are proved wrong. No, this post isn't about Kopf reflecting, at Hopwood's behest, on what, in fact, constitutes a proper and befitting sentence when someone breaks the law.
This post is about how easy it is to judge another person and how dangerous it is to label them, for it can take a lifetime, if ever, to climb out from under an opinion voiced by a person in the position of powerful authority.
Of course I don't know Mr. Hopwood, but I seriously doubt that prior to his arrest at 23, he woke up one morning, beaming from ear to ear, full of energy and enthusiasm for life and said, "I know. I'll become a Bank Robber. And possibly hurt people in the process. And then I get to go to prison for the rest of my life, oh Boy. Yeah...that's it! I can't wait."
I have never known of, for instance, an alcoholic, a homeless person, a depressed person, a person who has lost their job...who wakes up in the morning and wants to live their life out of alignment or out of harmony with their own abilities, who wants to swim against the tide, who honestly wants a life of difficulty. I have never known a person facing tremendous difficulty who wants to life a life of difficulty or crime. Not ever.
But judgements are passed on people every day, whose lives, fraught with conflict and forces we can scarcely imagine, we judge, whom we declare "punks," "losers," "ne'er-do-wells..." I do not think there is a descriptive word I find more disturbing and distasteful than the word "loser."
But "punk" is right up there and calls to mind the recent story of young Trayvon Martin, who met his demise at the hands of a man who believed he, too, was a "punk." How easily Shon Hopwood could have lost his own life in an instant and not been given the chance to turn his life around. How easy it is to believe that such a youth as Hopwood could never turn his life around.
Hopwood does not suggest that he was innocent or that he shouldn't have been sentenced to prison. He evaluates himself as “a reckless and selfish young man back then. I changed.” Indeed he did.
And he suggests that there is a tipping point beyond which the sentences for certain crimes make it next to impossible for prisoners to redeem themselves.
There are a host of good questions: Do we sentence people to prison to teach them a lesson? Hoping that they will wake up and re-enter society as productive people? Or to rot there becoming even more of what we believed them to be in the first place?
We have always been tremendously conflicted about sentencing people to prison. We don't like death row for obvious reasons. But it is all too easy to lock someone up and forget about the one key thing that it is exceedingly difficult to come to terms with: How did they end up there to begin with?
But, echoing Judge Kopf's own words, "I would have bet the farm and all the animals" that there is more than one Shon Hopwood who is currently incarcerated and has within them the ability, brains and heart to completely transform their lives.
Do we believe in redemption and transformation, or don't we? Do we believe that people have the capacity to change, or don't we? Because if we believe that we as individuals have the capacity to change, shouldn't we give the benefit of the doubt to others?
For if we really, culturally, legally, spiritually, philosophically, intellectually don't believe in redemption, perhaps we should strike the word from our vocabulary.
This is a thought-provoking article and well-worth reading if you have the time. Thank you..as always...Giselle
P.S. For anyone who is even remotely inclined to think that what I am suggesting is letting everyone out of prison and doing away with our justice system, kindly refrain from commenting. Clearly that is also not what this post is about.