If you have a criminal record, but have served your time and paid your debt to society, should your felony conviction forever define you?
In a nation that celebrates redemption, underdogs and second chances; almost anyone can live a productive, fulfilling life after a personal failure.
However, employers and the public are slow to extend a second chance to ex-convicts. There is a special stigma attached to those with a criminal record. Every job application in the country requires you to reveal if you have ever been convicted of a crime. While you get to explain the circumstances around the conviction on applications, the very fact that you checked the box usually disqualifies you automatically.
Paul McKinley won the GOP special primary for the vacant 2nd Congressional District seat. He is a 54-year-old grassroots community activist, husband, father of two and grandfather to five girls.
Yet in the Chicago media world, he is defined as nothing more than an ex-con. Local media has used the term ex-con deliberately to evoke a negative response from the reader or viewer, as a way of disqualifying McKinley from serious consideration.
His criminal record as a young adult is nothing to ignore. He was convicted on 6 felony counts and served nearly 20 years behind bars for crimes including burglarizing a store, pistol-whipping a man for his watch and robbing a woman of $60 at gunpoint. His first crimes were committed 36 years ago when he was a junior at Fenger High School in Roseland. Before his 19th birthday, McKinley was behind bars after being convicted of armed robbery. McKinley was in and out of prison through 1981 and ’82 until he was convicted of two counts of armed robbery and four counts of aggravated battery causing great bodily harm in connection to a violent assault in Harvey in September 1982.
McKinley denies involvement in the 1982 event and considering the long track record of black men not getting fair trials in urban courts, who is to say what the real story is on that conviction.
Let’s assume that all the convictions are legitimate. McKinley’s story is not that different from thousands of other misguided, young black men on Chicago’s South Side whose inner anger got the better of them and lured them into a life of crime. All of McKinley’s violent crimes were committed before his 24th birthday and he spent much of his early adult life behind bars. Again, not a rare story south of 63rd Street in Chicago.
McKinley’s behavior should not be excused and the voting public has a right to know about his past. However, is it fair to label a man who paid his debt to society more than 15 years ago as nothing more than a throw-away ex-felon?
Take a look at these headlines from local media sources following McKinley’s primary victory:
FOX-32 Chicago: Ex-con Paul McKinley declared primary GOP winner in 2nd district
Chicago Tribune: In 2nd District Republican squeaker, ex-convict looks to be winner
NBC 5 Chicago’s Ward Room: Opinion: Chicago GOP Full of Clowns, Felons and Neo-Nazis
Numerous other lead sentences labeled McKinley as an ex-con without giving any other characterization about him, not even his age or community of origin.
The tone and sentence structure behind these headlines and lead sentences was meant to send a clear statement: ex-convicts (even those who have served their time) are branded, ridiculed, ostracized and not given a fair second chance or public hearing.
I don’t have an issue with local media covering McKinley’s criminal record. Voters should be informed and journalists have the obligation to report on what they find. I do have a real issue with reporters and editors who define McKinley as an ex-con in their leads and headlines as if it is the only title or description that can be assigned to him.
What message does this send to troubled youth in Chicago? If you have a criminal record, you should just give up on trying to live a productive, law abiding life or earning a respectable living? If you have made mistakes in your past and served your punishment, there is still no redemption from your label?
Media is at it’s best when it puts down ignorant stigmas that paint people into corners and at it’s worst when it propagates such stigmas.
Some reporters and editors in Chicago fell into the trap of writing a juicy headline at the expense of an ethical responsibility to not feed into existing social prejudices.
Paul McKinley is an ex-convict who served time in prison, but he is more than an ex-con.
Like any other offender who served their sentence, we should not ignore everything else he has done to turn his life around. A prison sentence should not overshadow his current efforts to represent a part of his community long ignored by those in power.
If you think Robin Kelly, a women who has not paid a price for her alleged time sheet fraud while working for the state of Illinois, is the best choice, vote for her. If you think her experiences and positions on key issues best qualify her to represent the 2nd Congressional District, vote for her.
But, when considering Paul McKinley, do not let his troubled youth define the character of the man running for Congress today. Take a look at his message, listen to his pitch and then reflect on what he represents today.
Even if you don’t vote for Paul, give him a fair hearing. All those who pay their debts are worthy of a fair hearing in public and on job applications.
Let’s show the youth of Chicago that our social justice system still works, even for those who have broken the law before. In America, everyone gets a second chance.