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A convicted murderer is accepted into Harvard University’s graduate history program only to have university officials override the admissions decision for fear of what news reports might say, among other stated and unstated concerns: If you didn’t read this compelling story, reported by Eli Hager at The Marshall Project, a nonprofit group focused on criminal justice, and published in the New York Times, you should. It is a forceful reminder of how we fail to think adequately about the ends and means of justice.
Michelle Jones, who is starting work on her Ph.D. at New York University this fall, was released from prison last August after serving twenty years of a fifty-year sentence for murdering her four-year-old son. The story of how she managed to become a published scholar of American history while incarcerated at an Indiana state prison—with no access to the Internet—is impressive in its own right. According to Hager, not only did Jones, now 45, lead “a team of inmates that pored through reams of photocopied documents from the [Indiana State Archives] to produce the Indiana Historical Society’s best research project last year. As prisoner number 970554, Ms. Jones also wrote several dance compositions and historical plays, one of which is slated to open at an Indianapolis theater in December.”
The details of why Harvard overrode the history department’s decision to admit Jones (one of eighteen selected from more than 300 applicants) are not entirely clear. However, Hager uncovered a memo from two American studies professors who examined Jones’s acceptance (she was a top alternate) and “questioned whether she had minimized her crime ‘to the point of misrepresentation.’” One of the professors, John Stauffer, further noted that “frankly, we knew that anyone could just punch her crime into Google, and Fox News would probably say that P.C. liberal Harvard gave 200 grand of funding to a child murderer, who also happened to be a minority. I mean, c’mon.”
C’mon indeed. Probably unintentionally, Stauffer voiced one of the unspoken presumptions of America’s criminal justice system: once a criminal, always a criminal. This presumption too often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because of the collateral consequences those with criminal convictions face after release from incarceration, including restrictions on access to employment, student loans, public housing, and other federal benefits.
But there is more for us to consider.
The one thing we know for sure is that Jones’s possible “misrepresentation” and “minimizing” version of her crime was cause for concern. Her crime was unquestionably a terrible one. After getting pregnant at fourteen as a result of what she called nonconsensual sex with a high-school senior, her mother beat her in the stomach with a board and she was placed in a series of group homes and foster family situations. This damaged and completely unprepared mother ultimately confessed to beating her four-year-old son and leaving him alone for days in their apartment, eventually returning to find him dead. Jones was twenty when she committed this horrible crime, which a personal statement accompanying her Harvard application described as the result of a “psychological breakdown after years of abandonment and domestic violence.”
Her statement that she killed her son partly because of her own trauma and psychological breakdown speaks to an unresolved tension in our thinking about crime. On one hand, we need to believe that there are reasons why people commit crimes; otherwise, we fear that anyone could become a victim or a perpetrator of violence at any moment. At the same time, we can give only so much credence, or even thought, to the explanation of why a crime was committed; too much understanding might cause us to question our criminal justice system’s reliance on incarceration as the most efficacious response to crime.
The belief that offenders should accept their responsibility and repent of their wrongdoing is so baked into our criminal justice system that it rewards offenders by taking months and sometimes years off their sentences if they say the magic words. As a federal public defender, I have counseled clients about their allocution to the court before they are sentenced. After all the lawyers have spoken, what should defendants say in those final moments before the gavel drops? The general advice is always to avoid blaming anyone else—or even pointing to conditions beyond one’s control—because the American myth of self-reliance and autonomy requires the defendant to bear the full weight of the offense in that moment. And when defendants offer their mea culpas, they give us all permission to think that justice has been well and fairly served.
After Jones spent many of the best years of her life in prison, why should it matter now how she describes something she did a little more than two decades ago? It matters because we need to ask ourselves whether the actions of someone as bright and capable as Jones were largely the result of forces beyond her reasonable control, namely intense trauma and extreme psychological duress.
And if we conclude, reasonably, that they were, we might further ask if fifty years of incarceration was an appropriate sentence in the first place. Would fifteen years have sufficed? Would psychiatric hospitalization have been a better response? Undeniably, Jones’s crime was horrific, but she fulfilled her end of the bargain, doing everything that the sentencing court and the Indiana Department of Correction asked of her, and then some. The Sentencing Project estimates that 161,957 people were serving life sentences as of 2016. The other two million adults currently incarcerated in the United States will be released someday. If Jones is not entitled to have her debt declared repaid in full, what hope can we extend to them?
Lisa Lorish is an assistant federal public defender in the Western District of Virginia and a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law.