Everyone has a past
The news reports regarding Ollie Robinson are relating to something he posted on twitter 8 years ago. The comments were wrong then, and they are wrong now. He has apologised. Robinson also said he had “worked hard” to turn his life around “over the past few years” and had “considerably matured as an adult”.
One thing that struck me in the reporting was a comment by Nassar Hussian, a British Indian former cricketer who captained the England team: “I also think we are probably a bit of a cruel society if we don’t realise that an 18-year-old does make mistakes”.
This news report on a day when a friend of mine, with a now spent criminal conviction faced a panel to allow her to apply for jobs in a particular profession that since coming out of prison she has studied for, qualified for, trained for and proved herself capable of delivering at a professional standard. But the rules are different in Wales than in England. To practice her profession in Wales she has to be approved. Five years ago she was considered by a panel from the approving organisation to be “untrustworthy” because she had an unspent criminal conviction. To prepare for today’s panel there were 235 pages of documentation to evidence her worthiness. Just to reiterate, she can already practice this profession in England. Despite answering this question in her submission, she was asked by the panel to explain her decision making in choosing to commit the crime she was convicted for, over a decade ago.
I’m lucky if I remember what I walked into the kitchen for… I have to think very hard as to who my employer was that long ago – let alone be able to tell you what decision made or even why I made the decisions I did.
The good news is that that she got a yes from the panel this time. But raking up the past and having to prove herself worthy has taken a very heavy toll.
What makes grace a luxury for the few?
For the purposes of this blog I will use the word Grace to mean the gift of regeneration and it is this definition that I want to explore when talking about second chances.
I have done and said lots of things in my life time that I am lucky have not been recorded for prosperity. Nothing that would have landed me in prison… but still… haven’t we all? I know many of my friends and colleagues who have expressed gratitude that there was no smartphones or social media when we were teenagers.
At the time of my mistakes and follies I have been fortunate that friends, families, work colleagues and even strangers have extended me grace and forgiveness. I don’t think I am unusual for messing up. In fact I would suggest that we all have a past we would sooner forget about, and have all benefitted from second chances.
But what made my mistakes worthy of grace whereas for others they are raked over the coals and have to demonstrate they are worthy of grace to be in receipt of it?
I’m not being deliberately obtuse. I understand severity and seriousness of mistake. After all you don’t tend to go to prison unless you break a law. But there is a reason why crimes become “spent” – it actually means that the law considers an individual to have been rehabilited to the point that they are considered (by law) to be as if the individual had never committed the crime in the first place.
So the same authority that has the power to incarcerate someone also has the power to grant them Grace.
But whilst the law may be just, I do think that our society is “probably a bit cruel”. After all, I know that some will judge me for having an ex-offender as a friend, my best friend as it happens. Would it shock you to know that I actually have another friend who went to prison too? I wonder, as I write this whether you are now thinking about my earlier “confession” about things I have done and said in my lifetime – are you now imagining that these might be some how worse than you first thought?
Judgement and condemnation
It isn’t hard to understand why we judge and condemn people who have been sent to prison or, like Robinson, trangressed in terms of socially unacceptable behaviour. After all, laws are written for a reason and societies develop norms in order to function.
The problem I am grappling with is the requirement for second chances. The lack of grace that is so prevalent because judgement and condemnation that means that many ex-offenders have no choice but to live on the edges of society because they are condemned and judged for mistakes they made, often decades earlier. Some of those mistakes are a result of the life circumstances that they find themselves in – a direct result of an inequity in society and unfairness. Kids born on the wrong side of tracks, poor employment opportunities and poverty.
We are told all the time that you only have a few seconds to make the right first impression. But what hope is there of making a good impression if you start from a point of being judged today for mistakes made more than ten years ago. Once a conviction is spent individuals don’t have to declare them except for certain jobs where a DBS is required. But how would your organisation react if it found out that you or one of your colleagues did have a conviction in the past? Or decades old social media follies resurfaced? Would you be treated with grace or suspicion? I am perhaps jaded by experience from watching my friends from the sidelines, but I think judgement of your worthiness would be coloured by such revelations.
We are all worthy of second chances
When my best friend was arrested, and subsequently convicted we had some really difficult conversations. But she is not ‘that’ person anymore, and hasn’t been for a long time. She has worked really hard to rebuild her life and is determined to make a positive contribution to society. She is worthy of grace.
But her experience has taught me how important it is NOT to judge or condemn someone for past mistakes. It doesn’t mean people automatically get a pass for crimes they have committed, continue to commit or racist, sexist etc. social media posts. But just as Dweck talks about the importance of individuals having a growth mindset we must also avoid having a fixed mindset about an individual’s ability to grow and change. In doing so we must extend grace in growth.