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A parable for today

Once there was a real estate developer who owned an apartment building. It required extensive renovations, so he set about having the wiring and plumbing updated, the floors refinished, and the windows and doors replaced.  On the final walk-through, however, he noticed that the front door to one of the units didn’t close properly. It was a correctable problem, though it would mean a couple weeks’ further delay. He hired a carpenter to come back and make it right.

When the door was fixed, he began to worry. What if there were other problems? What if a tenant called to complain of water leaking or a bad outlet? He had simply hired the contractor who submitted the lowest bid, and he now realized this might cause further headaches in the long run.

So instead of renting the apartments, he sealed the building and allowed it to fall into decay.

He never thought about the money he had already invested in the building. He never thought about the money he might have earned from rentals. He was satisfied just knowing that he would never have to worry about unexpected expenses in the future.


The actions of the real estate developer don’t make any sense. But they are very similar to the decisions society makes when dealing with people who have criminal convictions.

We spend many thousands of dollars educating each child in public school. Even the most underfunded, low-performing schools1 require a lot of money.

As those children become ready to take their places as productive members of adult society, a few of them become involved in criminal activity. We then spend a lot of money on apprehending, trying and “correcting” them.

But once we get to that point, we lose our focus. We treat those people as disposable members of society.

We support prisons that separate people from everything positive in their lives, like family, education, and employment, while enshrining a culture of violence, drug use and idleness throughout their incarceration.   After release — and the vast majority of people who are imprisoned will eventually be released — we exclude those returning citizens from many types of employment, no matter how long after conviction, and no matter how long they maintain a clean record. We treat all drug offenders as if they were dangerously violent people.2 We ignore the fact that innocent people of limited means routinely plead guilty to things they didn’t do, rather than risk conviction and lengthy imprisonment on more serious charges if they go to trial using a public defender.  We accept the fact that crimes like drug possession, which are committed with equal frequency by people of different races, are prosecuted far more often against people of color.

We basically take whatever resources we invested in the education of those children, and we flush them down the toilet. We seem bound and determined to keep returning citizens from contributing to society to their fullest capacity. In our fear that they may commit new crimes, we make it difficult for them to engage in any legal means of supporting themselves.

Obviously, as Quakers, who believe that there is That of God in every person, this is a serious moral issue. That’s why Merion Friends Meeting is pursuing criminal justice reform as one of our areas of special concern.

But no matter what your religious or moral beliefs, it’s just plain stupid to maintain the status quo.



1. We run schools that are so dangerous that the legislators setting educational policy would not allow their own children to walk inside those schools without a security escort, we have truancy laws requiring children in those districts to attend those dangerous schools if their families can’t afford private schooling (or don’t have an educated, stay-at-home parent to conduct home schooling), and then we act surprised that those schools produce more violent adults.

2. That is, unless the drug involved is alcohol, the drug of choice of many people in power.  DUIs receive special treatment when crimes are considered for expungement.

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