Les Mis

My wife, and son and I went to see the movie version of Les Miserables last week. I was familiar with the plot of Victor Hugo’s 1862 masterpiece, its twists of fate and multiple sub-plots. This was the first time I had given any thought to the storyline since my release from the New Hampshire State Prison burdened with the labels of felon and sex offender.

Ironically, Americans love Les Mis.  The themes resonate with us, personal triumph over adversity, idealists fighting for a noble cause, star struck lovers who find each other in the end. Yet, the central theme of the story remains as foreign to us as it was to Hugo’s readers.

Jean Valjean is a criminal. He was locked up nineteen years for breaking and entering, petty theft and multiple escape attempts. Sure, he says he was only stealing to feed his family, but we know how convicts lie. In post-revolutionary France criminals like Valjean are labeled for life. Society then, as society now, believes, in the words of Officer Javert, “men like you can never change.”

The paroled Valjean arrives in the town of Digne but is shunned by the citizens because of his yellow convict’s passport. Only the kindly bishop Myriel welcomes him. When Valjean is caught stealing the bishop’s silverware, Myriel covers for him, claiming the silver was a gift. This profound act of unconditional love changes Valjean for life. But to live out this new life, Valjean must reject society’s label, tear up his papers and assume a false identity.

He prospers financially and philanthropically, but the law, in the person of Javert, catches up with him. To avoid prison for breaking parole, he must run again and assume a new identity. Through all this, his life continues to be marked by good deeds. He raises the orphan Cosette as his own daughter. He helps his tormentor, Javert, escape certain death.  He risks his life to rescue Cosette’s boyfriend Marius. In the end, Valjean dies vindicated (though still a parole breaker and a wanted man).

In short, the theme of Les Mis is that people, even those who have committed crimes, can change if given the chance to do so. Victor Hugo spotlights the travesty of labeling individuals by the mistakes of their past.

Fast forward one hundred and fifty years. In 2006, Congress enacted the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act. This law imposes lifelong federal registration requirements on anyone ever convicted of a sexual offense.  SORNA even created a new crime with which to punish those who fail to register. The penalty is 10 years in federal prison. Congress enacted this law because it believes men like this can never change. Lawmakers ignored the ever-increasing evidence that disproves the myth of high sex offense recidivism.[1] To become a SORNA lawbreaker, one need only refuse to cooperate with society’s labeling and public shaming procedures.

So, the next time you hear the police are looking for someone whose only crime is failure to register as a sex offender, take a moment to think of Jean Valjean.  If he desires to live a quiet life, let’s hope he meets a Bishop Myriel before he is found by an Officer Javert. 

[1] Dornin, Chris. “Facts and Fiction about Sex Offenders.” on the web at  http://www.ccjrnh.org/node/46.