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Only the rich can afford to buy redemption

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© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2001

As Bill Clinton saw it, Marc Rich had been punished enough. He had spent 17 years in Spain and Switzerland, living high on his millions. But he was unable to return to his homeland, the good ol' U.S. of A., because here he would be called to answer for a 51-count indictment that included accusations of buying oil from Iran while Americans were being held hostage.

According to Clinton, Rich, whose ex-wife has given and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Clintons and the Democrats, deserved to be pardoned.

Ah, redemption, second and third chances. It is something Clinton understands well. We are all fallible humans, and when we do wrong, we need to know there is the opportunity to start over, to be forgiven and get our lives back on track.

But in today's world, redemption is just another exclusive playground of the rich, a purchased indulgence. Those without resources are more often branded for years by their past crimes, with the government enthusiastically heating the iron.

Tammie Barber's case is a good example. Barber, a carpenter and Pinellas County resident who was recently profiled by Times staff writer Curtis Krueger, worked through a serious drug addiction with perseverance and treatment. After turning her life around, she developed breast cancer and was no longer able to work. Her $241-per-month welfare payment wasn't enough for private-sector housing but because of prior drug convictions she and her 5-year-old daughter have been turned away from public housing.

Barber was caught up in the "One Strike" rule of the federal department of Housing and Urban Development, which encourages local housing authorities to evict or block families from public housing if any member has engaged in certain criminal activities.

And here's another law the drug-abusing rich don't have to worry about. In 1998, Congress decided to deny student loans to former drug users and dealers. Last year, nearly 8,000 students who applied for federal financial aid for higher education were deemed ineligible for all or part of their request due to past drug convictions.

(Great idea, don't you think, keeping young people with drug problems out of school so they never have a more attractive employment option than drug dealing?)

Also, ex-felons in Florida, as in numerous other states, are barred from voting. You may have paid your debt to society but you're still marked. And if you're an immigrant who has been living here legally most of your life, but once, maybe decades in your past, committed an "aggravated felony" (a phrase so broadly construed it includes minor drug crimes), expect to be deported.

None, though, has it worse than former sex offenders. While some people who fit this category have certainly committed heinous crimes, we never allow these ex-convicts to be redeemed. Instead, we track 'em, hound 'em and run 'em out of town. In all states, people labeled sex offenders have to alert authorities every time they move. In many places local police are required to alert neighbors to the presence of a sex offender in their midst. Kindly neighbors then take it upon themselves to burn down his house.

Former sex offenders who aren't being roughed up in their communities often find themselves in prison-like mental institutions. Sixteen states have statutes like Florida's Jimmy Ryce Act where so-called sexual predators may be involuntarily committed for an indefinite length of time after serving the entirety of their prison sentence.

But the saddest example of the government's retrenchment on the notion of redemption is in the area of juvenile justice. We used to view young people as still developing to maturity and therefore less culpable than adults.

Today, minors are still not mature enough to vote or drink, but juvenile offenders 11 years old and younger are deemed as responsible as any adult and face punishments that steal any opportunity for a new start. Last month, 13-year-old Lionel Tate of Fort Lauderdale was convicted of first-degree murder, a verdict that carries a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. He had been charged as an adult after beating 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick to death in what he claimed was a professional wrestling re-enactment.

Why have we decided that people are irredeemable? We know change is possible. Look at George W. Bush. He went from a drunken-driving gadabout to president.

Of course, the George Bushes and Marc Riches of the world have money and connections -- their safety net acts like a trampoline. Alternatively, for the Tammie Barbers and Lionel Tates of the world, there is no margin for error.

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