Just One of the Bad Guys

In February I went to see my parole officer.  He gave me an appointment for March.  He said it would be my last.

“Don’t I have to come in the day I max out,” I asked, “to sign paperwork or something?”

“No,” he said, “We’ll send you a letter saying you’re done.”

“That’s it?” I asked incredulously.

He nodded.

I remembered the formality of removing my liberty: the arraignment, the grand jury, the indictments, the warrant, the arrest and late night transport to jail handcuffed in the back of a cruiser, the thousand dollars bail posted at midnight by my brother-in-law. There was discovery and pre-trial hearings, innumerable formal letters from my attorney (my heart in my throat every time one came), the courtroom with its solemnities and rules. I stood as the judge read out the verdict. They handcuffed me right there in front of my family and friends and led me away. In prison, they strip-searched me, taking away my dignity along with my liberty and all my earthly belongings. They assigned me a number. I would wear it on every official piece of clothing for eight years. This was the price of my offenses.  I was paying my debt to society.

Compared to this, restoring my liberty seemed like an afterthought. “We’ll send you a letter…”

A week after my max date, I got mail. “You have expired from parole under docket NH-99-S-824-828 as of 04/02/2014. Best of luck in the future.”

So that was it. “Paid in Full” stamped on the invoice demanding fourteen years of my life. Good luck and goodbye.

Recently, my wife and I watched “The Last Hangman”.  It’s a film about Albert Pierrepoint, Britain’s famed executioner and expert in efficient hangings. 

Pierrepoint was an ordinary guy - a grocer and pub owner most days. Executions were his sideline. When he was about the business of administering death, he was punctilious.

One scene shows him washing a body. His assistant asks why he doesn’t leave that job to the undertaker.

“Because they wouldn’t treat her right,” Pierrepoint says. “We know she’s paid the price. She’s innocent now.”

It seems a piece of 1930’s arcana. Does anyone still believe you can pay your debt to society? These days, the courtroom drama is not about imposing a debt to be paid.  It’s about consigning the lawbreaker to the ranks of the socially contaminated, from which there is no escape.

The law reflects the American myth that the world is best understood in black and white, divided into good guys and bad guys.  The judicial system is our dividing tool. Once unmasked, the bad guys are one-dimensional, always plotting their next crime. They need to be corralled, controlled.

Ever since a 2010 Supreme Court decision, Padilla v. Kentucky, there’s been a lot of attention paid to the 4 C’s - the collateral consequences of criminal conviction. In that case, the Court said lawyers must tell clients about the consequences of getting officially labeled a bad guy. They are many.

Some federal collateral consequences for sex offenders like me are understandable. I am barred from working for Head Start. Some appear to be the product of lawmakers’ prurient imaginations. I am barred from employment in a long-term nursing care facility. And some are just kooky. I am barred from work as an airport baggage handler.

Some consequences seem designed to alienate. I am ineligible for federally funded public housing, for food stamps, for federal disaster assistance, for federally subsidized small business loans.  I am ineligible to sponsor a relative for immigration.  And, as a sex offender, I am expressly ineligible for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s whistleblower award.

State and local laws are a patchwork of even more outrageous anti-bad guy initiatives. All 50 states have offender registries with lifelong requirements. In some places, you have to tell the police if you’re going to be away from home for more than five days. Some guys have to pay an annual fee for the privilege of being on the bad guy list. Some states tell you where you can live, work, and even recreate…no public parks, no libraries, no social media sites…the list gets more creative every year. Some places say what holidays you can celebrate. Halloween is out in Maryland. No carnival masks in Louisiana. Florida bans registrants from using public hurricane shelters. In case of a storm, go to the nearest prison. There are so many restrictions imposed on former offenders that the American Bar Association likens it to internal exile. But that’s alright. These are bad guys.

On the last day of my sentence I got home from work and made myself a snack.

There was a knock on the front door. I looked through the window. It was a local cop. “Oh, God. What now?” I groaned.

“Mr. Horner?” he asked as I opened the door.

“Yes,” I said, trying to figure out what I had done wrong.

“We’re doing registry checks. Mind if I come in?”

I opened the door wider.  He stepped into the front hall.

“You got some identification?”

“Sure.” I showed him my Vermont driver’s license.

He made a note on a clipboard, then glanced around.

“This is a nice place,” he said, “Nice neighborhood.”

“Yes,” I said, “We like it.” I wondered if this was something more than small talk.

As I closed the door behind him, I noticed my hand was shaking.

“Better get used to it,” I told myself. “You may think you’ve paid your debt to society, but the bill collector is gonna keep showing up.”