Over the weekend I had the misfortune of being a fringe participant in a conversation about Michael Vick, and in it I heard a viewpoint which also has appeared in the more militantly animal-conscious corners of the internets. Namely, Mr. Vick should be banned from returning to the NFL where he stands to make a seven-figure salary when a team decides to roll the dice on a talented player with public relations and "character" issues. I see this viewpoint as an example of just how deeply-rooted conservative frames of criminal justice issues have become in this society.
To briefly review the facts, Vick committed some fairly heinous crimes for which he was indicted, convicted, and punished. He served 20 months in Federal prison. One could easily argue that he would have served more if not for his wealth and celebrity, but he also wouldn't have been prosecuted without his wealth and celebrity (as his high profile encourage prosecutors to make an example of him, which is fine with me). He also lost his $120 million contract, lost millions more in endorsements, had several million dollars worth of property seized, had to repay his former employer a substantial portion of the millions he had been paid, and was forced into bankruptcy. All of this sounds fair to me. He has been punished with good cause. But he has been punished.
In pre-1970s America, and in most of the industrialized world today, the purpose of incarceration and punishment is rehabilitation. Vick's words, his actions, and the fact that he hasn't smiled for 2 years indicate to me that he's a person who realizes "Wow. I fucked up. Bad." Without defending or excusing his actions, I can buy the argument that he knew that he was breaking the law but didn't think it was a big deal. Among poor communities, especially in the South, animal fighting and abuse are cultural institutions. He had probably been around it all of his life and, conversely, rarely around people who told him it was vile and unacceptable. He knew it was illegal the same way you know speeding is illegal. After going to Leavenworth, losing millions of dollars, and becoming a social outcast, I am willing to bet that he now understands that he was quite wrong.
Isn't that what a justice system is supposed to be about? We punish people for violating the law – violations for which ignorance is no excuse – and we rehabilitate them. But in post-1980, War on Drugs America, that isn't enough. We want to find some way to punish the guilty for life. We want assurances not only that they were incarcerated but that they were incarcerated in a roach-infested, windowless cell with no lights for 23.5 hours per day, released briefly to be tied to a post and whipped. We think it's neat that people convicted of drug-related offenses are ineligible to receive student loans (thus less likely to go to college, thus far more likely to return to one of the few high-paying careers that require no education: selling drugs). And that leads some of us to think it's not only desirable, not only acceptable, but right that Michael Vick should somehow be punished in perpetuity for his crime.
I could understand a long-term punishment specific to his crime. For instance, it would make sense if the judge forbade him to own dogs or required him to submit to a weekly visit from animal welfare officers if he did so. That would make sense in the same way that habitual drunk drivers are forbidden to drive or pedophiles are not allowed to be around children. However, I fail to see the benefit or logic to denying him the right to be employed in a field unrelated to his crime. The sense that it is Unfair for such a Bad Person to make a high salary doesn't have much of a place in the law. I doubt that Scooter Libby is working for minimum wage right now.
A friend of Vick's, one Clinton Portis, commented when he was first charged, "I don't know if he was fighting dogs or not, but it's his property, it's his dog. If that's what he wants to do, do it. I think people should mind their business." This was widely reported. Another portion of the interview wasn't: "I know a lot of back roads that have the dog fighting if you want to go see it." Among poor, rural, Southern communities (and, according to law enforcement, increasingly among poor, urban, black communities) animal fighting is so pervasive that it simply isn't seen as a serious offense by people who are exposed to it regularly. So when Portis later stated, "At that time I had no idea the love people have for animals, and I didn't consider it when I made those comments" he probably wasn't lying. Hopefully the point that animal abuse is immoral and illegal has been made abundantly clear to Vick, Portis, and the many people who follow their careers – and the last group are the intended audience when a high-profile person is prosecuted for a crime. Now we move on. Guilt has been admitted and punishment has been administered. It serves no constructive purpose to channel the spirit of Reagan and adopt the attitude toward (non-white collar) criminals favored by his worshippers in Orange Counties across America.