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A rapper's redemption - Joel Hall

Events of the last two years have proven to be a life-changing whirlwind for Clifford Harris, Jr., (aka the rapper T.I.). And the public, thanks to the media and MTV, has been there to take the ride with him.

Since posting $3 million in bail in 2007, after being charged with attempting to purchase illegal machine guns with silencers, Harris has spent almost a year and a half on a unique, highly supervised, community service program.

During that time, he has completed more than 1,000 hours of community service, mentored at-risk youths in some of the roughest parts of America, and tried to change the lives of seven teens on the wrong path, as chronicled in MTV's, "T.I.'s Road to Redemption."

Last Friday, the reality of Harris' actions became clear when U.S. District Court Judge Charles A. Pannell, Jr., sentenced him to one year and one day in prison. If not for the unique sentencing of Judge Pannell, Harris may have spent the majority of his life behind bars.

When I first learned of Harris' plea bargain in 2007, I was angry. I thought this was just another example of somebody with money and influence buying their way out of the justice system. I was also afraid it would create a future in which rappers without regard for the law could get off with community service for crimes that would earn other people life sentences.

Being part of the local media that flocked to Harris' initial service engagements, I almost felt taken advantage of. While young people may have benefited by learning from his mistakes, I knew that the visits were also crafted to curry favor with the court. I wondered if I were in the hot seat, would the courts show me such mercy.

Over time, however, I began to understand the judge's thought pattern when he was sentencing Harris. So often, the American justice system is concerned more with punishing individuals rather than changing their behavior. In Georgia, we have made many young people spend the rest of their lives in prison without considering their usefulness to society.

Judge Pannell saw something in Harris that many people fail to see in those who come from a life filled with disadvantages - the ability to effect positive change. Rather than throw the book at Harris and make that the example, he gave Harris the tall order of spending 1,500 hours trying to help change the lives of others.

"T.I.'s Road to Redemption," which follows Harris as he chips away at his sentence through community service, seems like a novel idea, but is actually one of the more meaningful shows that MTV has produced.

In one episode, Harris takes a 15-year old gang member from Newnan to the grave of his lifelong friend, Philant Johnson, who was shot to death in 2006 as the result of a club altercation. In the same episode, the youth breaks down as Harris' uncle, who spent 10 years in prison, explains in life-and-death terms the consequences of gang activity.

Throughout the show, Harris has taken several children, bent on revenge and trapped in a circle of gang violence, out of their environments and given them the opportunity to pursue careers in boxing, comedy, cooking, and photography. Because one judge chose to try something different, several disadvantaged kids got the opportunity to learn that they don't have to let their environments define who they are.

The impact of Harris' community service and his sentence on his behavior is yet to be seen. However, the change he has been able to effect in the last year and a half is undeniable. If this one-of-a-kind punishment can influence more rappers and youths to re-evaluate their ability to make positive change, all of us will share in the benefit.

Joel Hall covers government and politics for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at jhall@news-daily.com.