Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Misfit on Crime and Punishment

How do you respond when confronted with unredeemed evil? And where does evil come from?

In Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard to Find, a previously talkative grandmother can muster only one word when she finds herself alone with an escaped convict known as The Misfit. The word is Jesus, and she says it twice - intending it as an invocation of sorts, a call to prayer, but sounding, in practice, more like cursing.

The mention of Jesus' name immediately elicits a revealing reply from her abducter. "Yes'm," he says, "Jesus thrown everything off balance. It was the same with him as with me except he hadn't committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the papers on me."

The Misfit does not see himself as blameless. Yet he feels a kinship with Jesus, who knew what it was like to have the full force of the law arrayed against him.

For the Misfit, however, a lengthy prison sentence was not redemptive like Jesus' death. Rather, he becomes consumed by a sense of grievance that the punishment did not fit the crime. "I call myself The Misfit," he tells the grandmother, "because I can't make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment."

When Flannery O'Connor published this story in 1955, the U.S. prison population was a fraction of what it is today, and a character like The Misfit seemed like an outlier.

Today, brutal killings have become so common, and the media to report them so ubiquitous, that the shock value they had a half century ago is largely gone.

My question is this: To what extent have the heavy-handed sentencing policies of recent decades contributed to the creation of a multitude of misfits?

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