Hard cases test our principles and values. One such case is that of Ched Evans, the footballer who has just been released from Lancashire’s Wymott Prison, having served half of his five-year sentence for raping a 19-year-old girl on a night out. Although he still protests his innocence, Evans has done time for the crime. He now hopes to resume his career.
This wouldn’t be such a controversial ambition, were he not a professional footballer, a star striker for Sheffield United who was once paid £20,000 per week. Crowds went wild when they heard Evans might return to the pitch – not with applause, but in protest.
There has been a significant outcry in response to reports that his old club is looking to re-employ him. At the time of writing, 148,734 people have signed a petition demanding that Sheffield United “refuse to reinstate Ched Evans as a player”. That’s a large number of people who think he should not get his job back, even given the quick and easy click of a mouse with which these kind of “I’m outraged” online petitions are now signed. The charity Rape Crisis England & Wales has suggested Evans be barred from football, arguing that to do so would “send out a strong message condemning sexual violence against women”.
Another hard case concerns a convicted paedophile. Paedophiles are probably the most reviled criminals in our society, though rapists come a close second, so it is no surprise that outrage was expressed when Jamie Oliver’s restaurant Fifteen hired a convicted paedophile as an apprentice. The man in question, while aged nineteen, raped a 12-year-old girl and has served four years in a young offenders’ institute. He has been placed on the sex offenders’ register indefinitely and banned from being near young girls without permission. He won a place on the apprentice scheme at Fifteen, a restaurant run by Jamie Oliver which aims to help disadvantaged young people, and this is what has caused the upset. For some, who have threatened to avoid the place and boycott Oliver’s products, the lad is the wrong kind of disadvantaged young person and does not deserve this kind of help. One person on Twitter said: “Will never eat or endorse a @jamieoliver product ever again very sad to see him having a paedophile apprentice thought better of you.”
It can seem unjust that prison and a few restrictions on their everyday lives is all these perpetrators suffer, that they can get out of jail and, sort of, start again. The law can seem an abstract and incomplete way of dealing with what they did. But we need to pause for moment and think about why these two men, and others like them, should have the opportunity for rehabilitation, and why it is right that once they have served their sentence they should have another chance at something like a normal life.
When people are found guilty of a crime they should be punished. They should be sent to jail for however long judges and the prison authorities deem appropriate, and see through whatever is required of them afterwards. This is how criminals are held to account for what they have done: they are removed from society, denied its pleasures, and their freedom curtailed. In prison, they should ask themselves hard questions and come to terms with what they have done and why.
But once released it should be possible for those who have committed a crime to re-enter society in some fashion, to be able to get a job, maintain a relationship and be a responsible citizen. This is not to say they should be treated as if nothing happened, or celebrated as virtuous people – far from it. They still have to prove themselves, and win back our respect, if they can. But they should be granted that opportunity.
Such rehabilitation is part of the judicial process, and if we believe in it – and we should – it must apply to footballers as well as plumbers, to celebrities as well as civilians, and to rapists as well as paedophiles.
It’s not just that the alternative would be to encourage them to continue with a life of crime – which it would – but that our justice system is one which, rightly, punishes the crime and no more: it does not go out for revenge. And rehabilitation is part of the judicial process because we believe that people can change and improve themselves, even when they have done something awful.
One reason given by those who wish to see Evans barred from working as a footballer is that he is a role model, especially for kids. This is one of the peculiar things that has happened to the game of football, which, despite any protestation that it is something more, remains just a bunch of guys kicking a football about. The sport has become way too important, too politicised, than it deserves to be or can carry off. These are able young blokes with nimble feet and fit bodies. They are great footballers, but that’s it – they are not gods.
Nonetheless, Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who clearly has nothing else to think about, and no longer understands what it means to be a liberal, has urged Sheffield United to think again about employing Evans, saying that: “I really do think that footballers these days, they are major public figures who have a public responsibility to set an example for other people”.
But what would you rather children learn? That if you do something wrong, you will never be forgiven, never get your life back, and that you will be ostracised by society forever? Or, that, providing you have changed, society will allow you back, let you get back on your feet and allow you to find a decent job so you can earn your living and reintegrate with society after taking your punishment? I would rather the latter: that kids learn that pretty much every human being, once they have been held accountable for their actions – been punished in a manner that fits their crime – is entitled to, and gets, a second chance. I would rather young people understand the value of justice.