"The Lord strengthened the heart of Pharaoh and he did not heed them, as the Lord had spoken to Moses" Exodus 9:12
The concept of free will is basic to human existence - the ability to make conscious decisions and to decide, to some extent, our fate. The entire notion of reward and punishment for the choices we make hinges on this principle. Yet God's hardening of Pharaoh's heart seems to undermine not only the principle of freewill but call into question the ability we have at any time to do teshuvah, to repent for our misdeeds.
Rambam avers that, at the outset, man is free to choose any path or action he so desires. He is afforded equal opportunity to do good or evil. But as soon as he has made his first choice, then the opportunities facing him are no longer so evenly balanced. If he embarks on an evil path, the harder it will become for him to revert to the good path, even though his essential freedom of choice is unfettered. In other words, it is not the Almighty who has hampered his freedom, and made repentance difficult. He has, by his own choice and persistence in evil, placed obstacles in the way leading back to his reform. This is part of man's make-up. The more he chooses to err and sin, the more his sins act as a barrier between him and repentance.
It is not just Pharaoh who felt a compulsion to continue his wickedness through the enslavement of our people to the bitter end. In our own society so many youngsters have turned to life of crime with a sense that they have no other options; as a result the downward spiral continues. It is incumbent on government and society to ensure no matter how far a person has veered, the opportunity of reform and reintegration as a member of society remains open to them.