Harvard’s rejection of murderer divides USA

Jones on prison: “I’ve already graduated from the toughest school there is.” © Marshall Project

Should convicted murderer Michelle Jones have been given a place at Harvard? When it was taken away, her extraordinary story triggered a furious debate about crime and punishment in the USA.

Among the new students arriving at New York University last month, one stood out. She was 45. She had never used a smartphone. Her glasses came from Indiana Women’s Prison, where she had spent the last 20 years. And she was a murderer.

Michelle Jones may not be like other college kids, but then she was not a typical prisoner. As The Marshall Project reported last week, she was found guilty of killing her four-year-old son in the 1990s. Facing 50 years behind bars, she began to read.

Jones learned quickly. She penned plays, received a bachelor’s degree and wrote a highly regarded paper on the history of women’s prisons in Indiana. Her sentence was reduced. As her release this summer approached, she applied for PhD programmes, with Harvard as her first choice.

The university’s history department accepted her. But then, in a stunning reversal, its senior administrators overruled the decision. Professors were reportedly concerned that Jones had “misrepresented” her crime to them. However, one also expressed his fear of a conservative backlash against Harvard, and his doubt that Jones would fit in.

“If this candidate is admitted to Harvard, where everyone is an elite among elites,” he said, “that adjustment could be too much.” Rejected, Jones went to NYU instead.

Her case has caused huge controversy — unsurprisingly, as it touches on some of the hottest topics in US society today: race, mental health, child abuse, liberal elitism. Above all, it crystallises a big question in the country with the world’s largest prison population. When has a criminal been punished enough?

Around one in three American adults has a criminal record. With the internet, it has become much easier to check a job or college applicant’s background. Facing discrimination, former prisoners often find it hard to reintegrate into society. As a result, three quarters are arrested again within five years of release.

Harvard’s treatment of Jones has thrust these issues into the spotlight. Did it do the right thing?

Take no prisoners

“No,” say some. Rehabilitating prisoners helps them find a purpose in life and keeps the crime rate down. Everybody wins. Yet by turning Jones down, Harvard has sent out the message that a criminal should never be fully welcomed back into society. Good on NYU for seeing her potential, and accepting that she has had her punishment.

“Hang on,” reply others. We’re forgetting the opening chapter of Jones’s “success story”: she murdered her son. Aside from what that suggests about her mental fitness for Harvard, it is simply immoral to accept a vicious killer over another highly qualified candidate. She has done her time, but some privileges should be kept from her forever.

You Decide

  1. Was Harvard right to reject Jones?
  2. Should it be illegal for employers and universities to ask applicants about their criminal background?

Activities

  1. You are a journalist, and you have been granted an interview with Jones. Come up with five questions for her.
  2. You run a prison. In groups, design a program aimed at helping inmates develop skills for the outside world.

Some People Say...

“He who opens a school closes a prison.”

— French saying

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In 1992 Jones lived with her four-year-old son Brandon, who had developmental problems. When friends remarked that they hadn’t seen him in a while, Jones said he was living with his father. But she later confessed that she had beaten and abandoned him, found him dead, then hidden his body. Jones says she herself suffered abuse in her youth.
What do we not know?
What drove Jones to kill her son. Those sympathetic to her have argued that she was a victim as well as a perpetrator of abuse, and cannot be wholly blamed for her fragile mental state. Others, pointing to her attempts to cover up her crime, describe her in more sinister terms: as a cold, calculating psychopath who was ashamed of her son’s disability. Can we ever truly understand what turns some people into killers?

Word Watch

The Marshall Project
A respected non-profit online publication focusing on the issue of criminal justice in the USA.
Highly regarded paper
The paper, which she co-wrote with another inmate under the guidance of a former professor, won a prestigious award.
Conservative backlash
The professor said: “Fox News would probably say that P.C. liberal Harvard gave 200 grand of funding to a child murderer, who also happened to be a minority. I mean, c’mon.”
World’s largest prison population
The USA has 2.15m prisoners, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies. China comes second with 1.65m.
One in three
In 2014, The Wall Street Journal reported that the FBI’s criminal database contained 77.7m people.
Hard to reintegrate
A growing number of employers — including the US federal government — are no longer asking applicants about their criminal background. This as known as a “ban the box” policy, referring to a tick box on an application form.
Three quarters
According to a Bureau of Justice study which followed 404,638 prisoners released in 2005.

Subjects

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