Ched Evans has been punished. Let him return to his job

Published by The Guardian (17th October, 2014)

Let us start with the most important fact. Ched Evans is a rapist, a footballer found guilty of predatory assault on a drunken teenager dazzled by his fame and wealth. Forget for now the well-financed campaign to clear his name, the offensive statements from his family that he remains a role model, the silly comments this week by a TV personality, even the horrific abuse on social media of his victim. We should be pleased this creep was caught, convicted and jailed, which remains shockingly rare for rapists in this country, and that he will stay on the sex offenders register indefinitely.

But when he walks out of Wymott prison in Lancashire, the former Welsh international steps straight into a national furore. Almost 150,000 people have signed an online petition urging his former club Sheffield United not to rehire him. Many people are dismayed at the idea of him picking up his £20,000-a-week salary again and continuing his career, his name chanted by fans and an idol to youngsters. Activists claim ostracisation would send a strong and much-needed message that sexual violence is not tolerated in sport.

It is easy to sympathise with such arguments. But ultimately they are wrong. For there is a vital liberal principle at stake: the right to rehabilitation after punishment. The high profile of this case makes it all the more important that, however unpalatable it seems, Evans should be allowed to return to his career. Just as Jamie Oliver should be saluted for courageously offering a second chance to a convicted child rapist by hiring him as a trainee chef at Fifteen, his London restaurant.

However toxic the culture of football can sometimes seem, however serious the crime, do we really want a society where a farmer or firefighter has the right to rehabilitation but not a footballer or film star? This would be celebrity culture taken to its most extreme limits. A rapist footballer cannot be equated with a fraudster trying to get a job in finance, or a paedophile teacher seeking work in a school, when there are obvious reasons to bar their return to a job. He is simply a sportsman – and one likely to be subjected to massive abuse from rival fans should he return to the playing field.

There are justified arguments over whether sentences for rape should be longer; certainly two-and-a-half years’ jail seems short, given the seriousness of this offence. Campaigners are correct to point out that victims of rape can suffer for the rest of their lives – but not to argue that Evans’ return to work would show his offence has been forgiven and forgotten. It would instead be recognition that society has imposed its most serious punishment of a spell in jail, and like any released inmate he should be given the chance to become a better citizen having completed his court-imposed sentence.

This core issue should not be confused with a debate over sexism in sport, or a discussion on the corrosive impact of vast riches handed to its leading practioners. To hear Nick Clegg, a Sheffield MP as well as leader of the Liberal Democrats, join those putting pressure on his local club not to take Evans back on its books shows only how far his floundering party has moved away from genuine liberalism. It is controversial cases such as this that define the criminal justice debate, especially in a culture that finds it so hard to show either compassion or understanding for those who end up in jail, regardless of their often-profound personal problems.

This case is totemic, given the importance of employment in breaking the crime cycle. Nearly all inmates want to escape the criminal lifestyle and 68% see a job as a key way to stop reoffending. But many employers openly admit discriminating against them, despite studies showing they can be surprisingly loyal staff, and nearly half of offenders remain stuck on jobless benefits two years after leaving prison. Having a criminal record also leads to problems finding a house, increasing the difficulty of finding paid work. No wonder Britain has high rates of recidivism – unlike Norway, which has the lowest rates in Europe partly because it finds jobs and housing for those released from jail.

This week it emerged that the number of rape cases reported in England and Wales has hit new highs, with almost 2,000 assaults each month. It is not difficult to appreciate the anger aroused by the idea of Evans pulling on the red and white stripes of Sheffield United and trotting out again in front of cheering fans. He has shown no contrition, unlike Lee Hughes, who was jailed for six years after causing death by dangerous driving then signed for Oldham Athletic on his release.

I would not really want him playing for the club I support. But he has been convicted and locked up for his crime. However vile his assault, however arrogant his unremorseful stance, even a rapist such as Ched Evans deserves the chance of rehabilitation and should not be punished twice for the same offence. It is through such hideously contentious cases that we determine the direction of our society.

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