Giving Second Chances — With A Twist

One of the most frequent, and in its way appealing, pitches for reducing prison sentences, or avoiding them entirely if at all possible, is that we all “make mistakes” and should be given a second chance.  The last few days have brought us the appalling story of the police killing of an unarmed and subdued man in Minneapolis.  As it turns out, there’s a tale about second chances lurking not far in the background.

Steve Hayward from the indispensable blog PowerLine notes today:

Which brings me to the George Floyd case. From what we know so far, there don’t seem to be any reasons to find excuse for [Minneapolis police] officer Derek Chauvin putting his knee on Floyd’s neck in the prolonged manner he did. Floyd may have resisted arrest, but he was cuffed and clearly subdued by the point at which the main video started rolling. (Other videos from security cameras of prior moments in the story are starting to emerge.) Chauvin apparently has a history of potential excessive force incidents, with a reported 10 prior complaints, with one of them resulted in Chauvin being placed on leave. If some of these incidents and complaints merited a stronger disciplinary response (which we can’t assume without knowing a lot more), it raises questions about why Chauvin was kept on the force.

So why was he kept on the force?

One answer, which Steve suggests, is that police unions, like other public employee unions, have gained disproportionate power, particularly in one-party, liberal cities like Minneapolis.  But I think there’s a broader answer:  The rote, sprawling, sentimental appeal for second chances overlooks a crucial question  —  a second chance to do what?

Rampant recidivism of anti-social behavior is an unfortunate but undeniable fact of life.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics has found, for example, that inmates released from state prison are re-arrested within five years a staggering 77% of the time.  [Update:  My friend Prof. Doug Berman of the Moritz College of Law alerts me to a more recent report from the US Sentencing Commission noting that, “over an eight year follow-up period, almost one-half of federal offenders released in 2005 (49.3%) were rearrested for a new crime or rearrested for a violation of supervision conditions….. Offenders released from incarceration in 2005 had a rearrest rate of 52.5 percent, while offenders released directly to a probationary sentence had a rearrest rate of 35.1 percent”].  But whether it’s half or three-quarters, a recidivism rate that high is appalling.

We don’t know yet since all the facts are not in, but at present it seems likely that George Floyd would be alive today if, at some point on the way to accumulating ten incident reports, Minneapolis had said that the third or sixth or eighth “second chance” for Officer Chauvin was enough.  As long as we refuse seriously to consider the question, “a second chance to do what?” more such ugly  —  and preventable  —  crimes are inevitable.