Paying a Debt to Society -- Then What?

By Diane Dimond

May 22, 2009 5 min read

Prisoner No. 33765-183 walked out of the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan. this week. He'd been sentenced to 23 months, but he got out a bit early for good behavior. He'll serve the last two months of his sentence in home confinement.

The point is — prisoner number 33765-183 did the crime and he did the time. Now, what will the rest of Michael Vick's life be like?

Vick was, of course, an NFL quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons when it was revealed that for five years he'd been running a brutal dogfighting operation from his 15-acre country home in Virginia. Why he'd be involved in such a blood-lust venture is anybody's guess. He certainly didn't need the money. He had a $71 million contract with the Falcons, $50 million worth of endorsement deals and $20 million in bonuses. He had fancy houses and cars, and the world gave him that royal-like treatment reserved for athletes incorrectly called sports "heroes."

Now, he's lost just about everything. The 28-year-old Vick has filed for bankruptcy. His court-approved after-prison plan includes a $10 per hour construction job, a far cry from the gridiron-to-the-nightclub life Vick once led. Like so many prisoners who do their time and gain their freedom, Vick must start over.

Vick's future will be ultimately rosier than other just-released prisoners. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says he's willing to rethink Vick's status, "when the legal process (is) closed." Although the Falcons shut the door, let's face it — Vick is a proven football player. If he can demonstrate he's still got it, another team could pick him up in a wink. And his PR blitz includes working with the Humane Society to stamp out dogfighting. Sweet re-entry to life on the outside.

It's clear Michael Vick is no angel, but what he went to prison for is considerably less serious than countless other convicts. Many of them are career criminals and their readjustment to life on the outside doesn't go so smoothly. They deal drugs, rob and kill helpless people and commit sex crimes. And after they get out, the latest figures show, about 60 percent of males will re-offend and be back in prison within three years. That's the bad news about our in-prison rehabilitation efforts.

The good news is that leaves another 40 percent of ex-prisoners — who I'd like to think really, earnestly want to be better people and build better lives. OK, my name isn't Pollyanna and I know a good chunk of that 40 percent likely returns to crime and just never gets caught. But a percentage of criminals who've paid their debt to society truly want to become whole, functioning, taxpaying citizens. The question is: What are we doing to help them? After all, their success would be to our benefit, right?

As it stands now, we convict them, house them, spit them back out on the pavement and except for some probation officer checking on them once in a while, they mostly hit the streets in the same state of preparedness for life as when they went in. Except after prison, they've got that unmistakable taint of ex-con on them that never goes away.

Unlike Michael Vick, who has a group waiting to take him under a protective wing, many of the offenders we release hardly have a clue where to start their new lives. They'll face housing and job discrimination; they'll forever be asked on applications, "Have you ever been convicted of a crime?" And while a majority of them have the brains to work out the high finance of major crime deals, few will ever be nurtured in the ways of legitimate business. No wonder the recidivism rate is so high! There is no such thing as the deal Eddie Murphy got as an ex-con in the movie "Trading Places," when two millionaire brothers suddenly gave him the chance to run their enterprise.

I'm a firm believer in the idea that you make your choices, you live with the consequences. But these people are a drain on all the rest of us. And, we're about to get a double barrel shot of reality. There's now a wave of aging baby boomer prisoners getting out and budget cuts are forcing states to grant early release to tens of thousands more.

We didn't think ahead. We spent so many billions on locking up people — housing, feeding, clothing them — that we forgot to prepare them for how to fit in once they got out. Shame on us.

Unless we refocus the justice system's priorities and figure out better ways to incarcerate and deal with those who commit crimes, we are going to continue to pay the price for them long after they rejoin us here on the legit side of life.

Visit Diane Dimond's official website at for investigative reporting, polls and more. To find out more about Diane Dimond and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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