Can a Hard-Core Criminal Become a Better Person?

Can criminals leave behind prison and become better people?

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This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Chris Richardson, Consultant:

Yes. My father did.

He was born a sharecropper in Georgia in 1927. His mother and father, never on easy terms (this is an understatement), separated when he was about 12 years old, and she moved with him and his younger sister to Boston, where she became a popular actress in the New Deal-funded black Shakespearean theater there. My father often helped his mother memorize her lines, and from this, he picked up a disconcerting ability to quote entire scenes of Shakespeare off the top of his head. And he retained it, even 50 years later.

They lived, of course, in the ghetto. My father became a young hustler very early in his career there, pulling various scams to bring a little extra cash to the family. He had a cool story about encountering a young Malcolm Little while heisting clothes from the Garment District in Manhattan to sell on the street back home in Boston. (I cannot confirm the veracity of this account; my father reformed to a point, but he remained a notorious bullshitter until his dying day.)

When he was 14, the United States went to war. My father wanted to join the fighting, but not only was his skin color a barrier, he was also too young to enlist. But he knew he had to get out of Boston and the life of crime (and punishment); he didn’t need to be clairvoyant to see in his future.

He eventually figured out how to join a mercenary group recruiting in Canada, was trained, outfitted, and shipped to China, where he fought against the Japanese during the war and later for the Communist Chinese government in various skirmishes afterward. From this, he learned the following: fluency in both Mandarin and Cantonese, much of which he retained in later life; a predilection for Asian women, and indeed for all things Asian; and how to do what was necessary to survive, including killing other humans without reservation or excessive remorse.

The latter skill paid off when, as a young man in the late 1940s, he was shipped to Los Angeles with nothing but a thank you from the Chinese government, a couple hundred bucks in his pocket and the shirt on his back. He immediately learned that things hadn’t changed much in his favor back home, so finding honest work for decent pay was not an option. So he started hustling again, eventually becoming the leader of a group of drug smugglers bringing various contraband into Texas, Arizona, and California from Mexico. He learned Spanish. In the course of these activities, he committed any number of violent crimes, including, rumor has it, murder.

A few years later, he was arrested for drug smuggling, tried, convicted, and sent to prison, where he remained for nearly 15years, until his release in the early 1960s.

And this time, things were different. The “crazy, liberal” California state government had created a program specifically designed to actually reform ex-convicts, including black ones, by sending them to college on special scholarships. My father enrolled in Sacramento City College, transferred to UC-Davis (yes, that’s my alma mater, too), and excelled. He earned multiple degrees in political science, met and married a crazy, rich white hippie chick from Orinda (my mother), fathered a son (me), and eventually landed a job as a professor of political science at the California State University in Chico.

He retired from Chico State in 1993, at the ripe old age of 66. Nine years later, he died in his living room of a heart attack, five days before the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, having never committed another crime, other than the occasional traffic violation, again.

It should be noted that it is becoming harder and harder for stories like this one to happen. In the early ‘90s, the California public university system instituted a policy of never hiring anyone, staff or faculty, who has been convicted of a felony. Similar policies and programs have since been implemented around the country, and not just in the education sector. Convicted felons are now more and more frequently forced to take whatever low-wage, menial work they can get. Which makes it that much more common that they turn back to crime as a means of actually making a decent living.

Under these current circumstances, my father might never have even bothered going to college, knowing that his prospects, even if he did, were poor.

And I might never have been born. And you might never have read this.

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