The Virginia Parole Board has come under fire for its release of Vincent Martin and for not properly notifying the victim's family. Martin had served 40 years for the tragic slaying of a police officer in 1979.
The board claims it has done repeated and thorough reviews of the case and highlights his stellar record of behavior while behind bars. Martin had an exceptionally positive influence on other prisoners and was called on to help resolve a violent prison uprising while incarcerated.
But the board has been equally criticized for granting too few releases among those who remain eligible for consideration (due to having been sentenced before parole was abolished in 1995).
A significant number of these men and women have proven themselves thoroughly corrected and rehabilitated after decades behind bars. Many have gained the trust and respect of prison officials and fellow prisoners, have taken every remedial class available, and have proven to be model citizens in the most challenging circumstances imaginable. Yet they have been denied release year after year based solely on the seriousness of their past offenses.
A growing number of these are also eligible for geriatric release, but are still routinely denied in spite of many being infirm, in need of intensive (and expensive) health care, and even being blind or in wheelchairs.
I understand the deep feelings of people on both sides. For family members of victims, no amount of punishment could ever compensate for the trauma and grief they have endured. On the other hand, many families long to have their repentant loved ones offered a hard earned second chance.
As people of faith, private citizens and public officials alike, we are mandated to both "do justice" and to "love mercy," along with "walking humbly with God," which means subjecting ourselves to a higher authority than our own.
In one of Jesus' familiar parables, an elder son, representing good people like us, is outraged by his father's celebration of a younger son's repentance and his return home after having wasted his inheritance and living a life of irresponsibility and lawlessness. Though worthy of being stoned to death for his disrespect and disobedience, the father, representing God, runs toward him, embraces him as one who has "come to himself," and warmly welcomes him home.
So what do we take from this story? Dare we show only disdain for wrongdoers, even thoroughly repentant ones, unmindful of our own need for grace? Or will we become ever more like the compassionate father, who not only forgave his repentant son, but put the family ring on his finger, restored him to his place in the family, and celebrated his transformation?
Showing mercy doesn't rule out tough love in cases of wrongdoing. It doesn't mean being soft on crime. It doesn't mean not expecting restitution and reparation to be made to whatever extent possible. But it surely means showing compassion toward all who demonstrate contrition and a genuine change of life.
That's not a mere suggestion. It's a divine requirement.
Harvey Yoder lives in Rockingham.