Give a dog a bad name … or another chance?

Marlon King vs Antwerp

Do you believe in rehabilitation? I mean after prison: do you think training, therapy and other methods can restore an ex-offender back to a normal functioning life after a period behind bars? I do. Not so much because I have great faith in the power of our probation service or cognitive behavioural therapy, but simply because the alternative is so defeatist.

So why am I writing about this? Two reasons. This week thousands of probation workers joined nationwide protests to claim that public safety will be jeopardised by the Government’s plans to transfer the community supervision of most former offenders to private companies. Britain’s National Probation Service has been around in one form or another since 1907, but it faces the prospect of being dismantled and having its functions contracted out to private companies, such as G4S and Serco. Probation officers’ unions argue that placing the responsibility for monitoring offenders after release to private firms will not only put communities at risk, but will threaten jobs in the probation service.

The argument would have a lot more force if the National Probation Service was doing a bang-up job itself. The truth is that it is not: six out of ten people who leave prison are re-convicted within two years. This is far from the worst recidivism rate in the world, but it’s not encouraging either. By contrast, the recidivism rate for prisoners in Norway is around 20 per cent. About 67 per cent of America’s prisoners are re-arrested and 52 per cent are re-incarcerated. A recidivist is a convicted criminal who breaks the law again after punishment.

Marlon King is a recidivist. He is also a professional footballer. He was released from prison in July 2010, after being sentenced to eighteen months for sexual assault and assault occasioning bodily harm; his employer Wigan Athletic sacked him after his conviction. He was placed on the sex offenders’ register for seven years. Earlier this year, he was arrested in connection with a hit-and-run incident, which had left a man injured. This week, he signed to play football for Sheffield United of League One. Many fans have reacted furiously, insisting that they would return season tickets and boycott games while he remained on the club’s books. King has experienced this before: immediately on his release he played for Coventry City amid fans’ protests. Interestingly, Birmingham City fans did not react when he moved to their club in 2011. You can see Sheffield fans’ point of view: King has a long line of offences dating back to 1997; he is, in many ways, a model reoffender – and I mean by model a representative example, not a good example. Sheffield fans have decided he is beyond redemption. Are they right?

My feeling is that King knows only one way to earn a living. He has played professional football since 1998 and, at 33, has got only a few more competitive years left in the sport. So far, he has shown few signs of a successful rehabilitation. But if there is a sliver of hope, it lies in football. The sport could still be his salvation. Forgive the pious tone: readers will know I am a practical man and I am still being practical. I don’t know what King would be doing now were it not for his ability to play football. I do have strong suspicions though. And I think anyone who is familiar with his life will share those suspicions.

He’s certainly no role model, but nor is any footballer no matter how virtuous they may seem. King is just plying his trade in an industry that does not demand impeccable moral qualities, or spiritual uprightness: footballers are not high-minded, right-thinking, incorruptible, scrupulous, guiltless, respectable people; they just play football. But that argument can save for another time. My point here is simple: if, as a nation, we have decided that justice is important, we should pay attention to one of its central precepts: fairness of treatment. King has served his sentence and should be allowed to resume his professional life as best he can. Football may yet to be his method of rehabilitation. Readers might reply, “don’t hold your breath,” but I am certain this is a better option than the alternative. Ex-offenders are stigmatized in the sense that they’re labelled as worthy of disgrace or social disapproval and find it difficult to re-integrate back into society. That alone accounts for the return of many to prison: they just can’t find work or any kind of acceptance. It’s difficult to shrug a bad reputation, even if it’s unjustified. We have an expression for this, of course: give a dog a bad name and hang him. King is fortunate enough to be granted a chance to redeem himself. He may not take that chance. But I for one prefer a world in which a chances are offered and spurned to one in which they are not offered at all.