People grow and change over time in response to their circumstances, and those who falter in their efforts or break societal rules warrant the chance for reconciliation, rehabilitation, and a new start. Redemption as an element of opportunity means providing the conditions that allow people to develop, to rebuild and to take full responsibility for their lives after misfortune or mistakes. It means using effective rehabilitative approaches that are appropriate and proportionate to a person’s conduct and circumstances. It means recognizing that rehabilitation is an often-rocky road that requires patience and compassion as well as swift and steady intervention. And it means rejecting the principle of retribution, which is punishment as revenge. The ideal of redemption, moreover, is especially powerful when it comes to children, who have virtually unlimited potential to develop and change with age and experience, and who are, by their nature, less responsible for their circumstances and in their behavior.
Redemption is a value held by virtually all of the world’s religions, which recognize the almost limitless potential for human improvement and change. It is reflected in our Constitution, which requires proportional treatment of misconduct. And it is embodied in human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which provides that “the penitentiary system shall comprise treatment of prisoners the essential aim of which shall be their reformation and social rehabilitation,” and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which provides that “the arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time,” and that “every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of their age.”
This value applies not only to crime and misconduct, but also to the chance we all need to start over after misfortune or disaster. We all grapple occasionally with forces beyond our control and, from time to time, need to begin life anew. Having the room and support to do so is central to opportunity.
Redemptive policies treat problems of drug addiction and mental illness through public health responses designed to help people conquer those problems. They emphasize approaches like job retraining and bankruptcy protection that help people recover after loss or dislocation. They view incarceration as an opportunity-ending event that should be a last resort, and use restorative approaches that address the harms caused by misconduct. They consider and address the impact of destructive behavior on individuals, families and communities. And they realize that denying fundamental rights like the right to vote, to housing, and to education based on past misconduct is contrary to the goal of a return to productive citizenship.