Tuesday, July 17, 2012

mug shots of my neighbor

CNN recently reported on a man who is haunted by his past in the form of old mug shots that he discovered posted on the internet. Mug shots are public record, and so it's perfectly legal to publish them online or in a periodical--and you can find newspapers dedicated to publishing individuals' criminal charges in gas stations throughout the South (I can't speak for northern or western states), often displayed prominently nearly the cash register.
The fellow in the report, Andy McMahon, has escaped a life of drug abuse and now has a good job and a family. Nevertheless his past mistakes are easily uncovered online. Many of these websites will receive payment to remove the images, a practice that naturally leaves people like Andy feeling as if their pasts are being exploited from profit. The periodicals are also sold for a small profit. 

Now, I believe it when these papers claim that they are primarily concerned with public safety. I have no doubt most of these people have the best intentions--at the papers, at least. The websites seem to be little more than money-making tools. But we all know good intentions can have less-than good results. And I have to wonder about this.

Consider these snippets from the CNN piece:

Broderick [media liaison for a "crime-fighting publication," Caught Up] recalled a man who was a sex offender and had finished serving his sentence. The man was trying to rejoin the community but felt he couldn't with his mug shot in the paper and online. Broderick said she and her team discussed the issue, but ultimately felt their need to inform was more important than helping the man overcome his past. 
"When you're talking about the safety of the community and the safety of children and seeing as how these are already public records, we just made the determination that it was in the best interest of the public to have this information available," Broderick said. "The lack of knowledge was not a chance that we were ready to take."

Their decision was very sensible. Safety is so, so important.

But was it a Christian decision?

Is informing people of someone's record, a safety precaution, really more important than helping a man overcome his past? Should safety—or the flip-side of safety, fear—be the deciding factor in how we relate to others? Or does love demand a different response from us, a different attitude towards the past offenders in our communities?
And are there other options here? Perhaps our calling is not to condemn publicizing mug shots, but to seek out those whose mug shots we have seen, to be their friends, and to walk alongside them as they try to rejoin the community. Perhaps it's our mission to make sure that someone's past, in your face, full-color, every time you buy an ICEE, does not have to define them. Maybe someone might recognize this guy, not from his mug shot, but as someone you know and care about, someone whose company you enjoy, whose opinions you value.

I don't want to speak a final word on this issue, some pronouncement from on high. But I do hope you'll give it some thought, and ask some serious questions of that little newspaper the next time you're standing in line at Exxon and suddenly find yourself face-to-face with someone else's mistakes.


Chris Belser said...

As a counselor, I've seen this play out on a smaller scale time after time with the teens I've encountered. Some incident in their past--whether it was a fight, a suspension, or an arrest--causes the people in their present to think less of them, to expect certain behaviors, and often to give up on them. I've met too many people either who expect the legal system to have a curative effect OR who subscribe to Old Testament guidelines for punishment. It's a struggle to fight past my own biases, but I strive to treat my students like Christ would--meeting them where they are, looking at the person behind the mistakes, and helping them move forward. Don't get me wrong--this can be extremely difficult (e.g. a 13-year old who shot someone), but it's what we've been commanded to do.

Nance said...

Thanks for that comment, Chris. It's good to hear from someone who's really out there in the trenches--and from someone who's doing good work!