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Ched Evans: what do we mean when we talk about offenders paying their debts to society?

Close of play. Nick Potts/PA Wire

Oldham Athletic confirmed on January 8 that it had reversed course and decided not to sign Ched Evans, the former footballer who was convicted of rape in 2012. Oldham becomes the latest in a series of clubs to pass on signing Evans amid public criticism and financial pressures.

Evans’s case raises important, and difficult, ethical questions. We often talk about punishment as a way for offenders to “pay their debts” to society. Evans spent more than two years in prison and is now completing the remainder of his five-year sentence out on licence.

But still at issue are various fraught questions. It is still not settled whether Evans has, in fact, paid his debt – and once he has completed his probation, we still have not decided whether he should be allowed to return to his former career.

The elusive answers to these questions will have implications not only for the Evans case itself, but for our expectations of ex-convicts more generally.

Privileges and rights

Millions of Britons have a criminal record. So if, as many people clearly believe, Evans shouldn’t be given the chance to return to his career as a footballer, an important question is how far this line of thinking should extend to the millions of others in not dissimilar situations.

Are we justified in denying jobs to people with criminal records generally, or is there something distinctive about Evans, his crime, or professional football that justifies the restriction in his case?

Our starting point should be that limiting people’s employment opportunities is unjustified in the absence of compelling reasons. In a society that claims to value liberty and equality, the presumption should always be against singling out certain classes of people and depriving them of jobs or other important goods.

This demands that we produce compelling reasons not to allow Evans to return to pro-football – and those campaigning to stop him have offered various ones. Playing professional sports is a privilege, not a right, it is argued and a convicted rapist doesn’t deserve the wealth and adulation that many pro-athletes enjoy.

Others argue football players, for better or worse, are role models, and signing Evans would send a message that his criminal behaviour is tolerated. Not allowing Evans to return to football could reinforce the message that victimisation is condemned, and this might help to deter him or others from committing similar crimes.

Just say it

For some, a key issue is that Evans remains unrepentant. Echoing the views of many, Labour leader Ed Miliband said he wouldn’t sign Evans because “he hasn’t shown remorse.” Evans did offer on January 8 a “wholehearted apology for the effects of that night in Rhyl”, but since he also continues to maintain his innocence, his “apology” will do nothing to to satisfy those looking for signs of genuine repentance.

Oldham Athletic’s Neil Joy announces that Evans won’t be signed. Nick Potts/PA Wire

We might disagree about whether deterring potential offenders, giving wrongdoers their just deserts and inducing repentance are worthy goals. But there’s a more fundamental question: isn’t punishment itself the proper arena to pursue these aims?

We punish to deter, or exact retribution, or rehabilitate, but most of us believe there are limits on how far we can go in pursuit of these aims. We say punishment must be proportionate, and that when an offender completes his punishment, he has paid his debt. Continuing to limit ex-offenders’ opportunities in the interests of deterrence, retribution, or rehabilitation seems disproportionately harsh.

In Evans’s case, much of the outrage seems to stem from the feeling that he hasn’t actually paid his dues, that serving two-and-a-half years in prison for rape isn’t enough. When the news broke that Sheffield United was considering re-signing Evans on his release, a petition addressed to the club’s chairman objected:

The message given is that men who commit such atrocious crimes will suffer only a small penance whilst the women they attack suffer for the rest of their lives.

This is an important point, and it’s crucial not to lose sight of the serious, ongoing suffering of the victims in such cases. But even if we agree that Evans’s sentence was too lenient, that is a problem for the justice system itself, not for the labour market.

We should be wary of the idea that it’s employers’ job to “correct” any perceived leniency in sentencing by restricting offenders’ job prospects. This is especially true if we are concerned about rehabilitation of offenders who have served their time.

Application rejected

Rehabilitation, of course, implies contrition, and Evans hasn’t expressed remorse for his crime. But in this respect, he’s hardly alone: many offenders complete sentences for a whole range of crimes without ever expressing regret for what they have done.

So if we’re going to demand sincere repentance before ex-offenders are allowed to return to their careers, we will have to deny employment to many more people than just Evans. We’ll also have to tangle with the problem of how to determine who is sincerely contrite and who is just talking the talk.

There are no easy answers in the Evans case, and those who suggest that there are haven’t thought enough about the questions. But as we grapple with this case, we need to reflect on the more general issue of what we mean when we talk about offenders paying their debts to society.

Maybe punishment by the criminal justice system has actually lost its crucial role as the principal way for offenders to atone.

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