How Bad Is the Criminal Justice System?

By Laurie L. LevensonJuly 19, 2020

How Bad Is the Criminal Justice System?

The Second Chance Club by Jason Hardy

IN HIS BOOK The Second Chance Club, Jason Hardy gives us a glimpse of how bad the criminal justice system is while offering a peek at how good some of the people are who still try to work within that system. After striking out at a few post-college jobs, like being a bartender and selling watches at JCPenney, Hardy decided to try his hand as a probation officer in New Orleans. He scored the job when he had the only credentials he needed — a bachelor’s degree and no criminal record.

Joining the probation office in New Orleans is definitive jump into the deep end of the criminal justice system. It is hard to find a jurisdiction more challenged by criminal offenders than New Orleans. There are economic disparities that fuel the system. Close to 50 percent of the murders in the city go unsolved. All of the classic factors fuel the challenges — racism, lack of education, fractured families, and, of course, prevalent drug abuse. As Hardy notes, nearly 50 percent of black children in New Orleans live in poverty, compared to nine percent of white children. Black male unemployment is close to 50 percent.

As soon as he joins the parole office, Hardy is assigned to a stack of files representing 220 parolees with convictions for everything from drug offenses to violent crimes. He is on a steep learning curve and quickly sees how our criminal justice system operates. For far too many offenders, it is an endless revolving door. And probation/parole officers are the doorkeepers. Their goal is to help defendants transition back into society, but they are also expected to help lock them up when their charges do not comply with their terms of release. As Hardy put it, he is a member of the “Second Chance Club.” Working against impossible odds, he tries to get people out of jail, but often has to help put them back in.

The only real way to understand the criminal justice system is to see it through the lives of the people most affected. While the system certainly affects victims, for probation/parole officers, they view the system through the lens of the impossible number of parolees and probationers they are expected to supervise. Each one of these individuals faces so many challenges in life that it is a wonder any of them succeed. Rather, they and their problems have been dumped into the criminal justice system, which is cynically expected to cure their problems or, absent that, make sure that they don’t become the problem of anyone outside of the correctional system. “The neediest people [are] at highest risk of getting back in trouble,” yet there are limited ways to serve their needs.

Hardy’s book is a moving look at the people of the criminal justice system. As he puts it, “solving crimes is a lot easier than solving people.” Not surprisingly, those that commit crimes are, by and large, broken people. While white collar criminals may be driven by greed, the street offender has other motivators. Satisfying those needs is the secret to keeping them out of the system.

So, what does cause people to commit crimes? It will come to no surprise to readers with any familiarity with the criminal justice system that drugs and mental illness are enormous factors. Parole officers are the front line in helping offenders find the social services they desperately need to stay out of jail. The only problem is that those services are, more often than not, unavailable. It is hard to give someone a “second chance” when they are just thrown back into the circumstances that caused their foray into crime in the first place. In fact, our system is perverse. To the extent offenders engage in everything from burglary to drug sales so that they have money for housing and food, the government will often deny housing subsidies and food stamps to individuals who have a criminal record. If you cut off legitimate sources of support, offenders will turn to other sources — including individuals still making their money from engaging in crime.

While much of Hardy’s book is focused on the systemic problems with the criminal justice system, the most insightful parts of The Second Chance Club are the most personal ones. He tells the story best when he tells the individual stories of his clients. There is no set rulebook for dealing with these clients. Hardy has enormous discretion whether to report violations or not. As he appreciates, he has to understand the person and not just witness what they are doing. Hardy demonstrates tremendous empathy and insight when reporting on his clients. They are more than cases, or names, or numbers — they are complex and damaged individuals who need help, but probably will never get it. Hardy recognizes that he will rarely fix them by throwing them back in custody; yet, he also worries about the harm they can cause to themselves and others if he turns his back for too long.

So, who are these clients and what can we learn about the criminal justice system through Hardy’s attempts to give them a second chance?

Kendrick. Years after Hurricane Katrina, Kendrick lived in what remained of the houses in the Lower Ninth Ward. Crashing in Section 8 housing was the best he could do after his release. Of course, it had to be under the radar since a probationer or parolee could not qualify for Section 8 housing. So, instead of renting a space legitimately, Kendrick would have to work a deal to be able to crash in a house full of individuals who reeked of marijuana, had teeth and hair “as gray as oyster shells,” and looked like there would never be a better future for them. At one point, Kendrick received a small Supplemental Security Income check to cover his basic living expenses. But that got cut off. Kendrick didn’t really know why since he couldn’t read; he only had an eighth-grade education. He needed a second chance because he really never had a first chance. His mother was beaten and abused; Kendrick couldn’t save her. Not surprisingly, he became a problem at school and his mother “let the streets have” him. The best you can have in supervising someone like Kendrick is “to prevent disasters.” To do that, POs have to find a way to get “needed social services” for the “people least able to run the gauntlet required to receive them.” Ultimately, and inevitably, “[a] combination of poverty, addiction, and untreated medical conditions made Kendrick a risk to public safety.” Mentally ill and reeling from the death of a close friend, Kendrick would go through the prison door again to get even the barest of services he needed.

Travis. The criminal justice system operates on the micro level: case by case. The politicians talk about systemic changes, but those are just words. Probation officers see people like Travis — people who, at one point, probably had a shot to make it. He was a drug addict. He got addicted to opioids. After getting his girlfriend pregnant, he tried to find a way to support her. He had a chance to work on her uncle’s offshore oil rig, but, predictably, he got fired because he could not pass the regular urine tests. Travis’s addiction pretty much guaranteed that he would stay poor and dysfunctional forever.

Damien. The only way he would succeed in life was by being a drug dealer. He wouldn’t stop selling drugs until he got locked up, but locking him up would be a waste of time. He knew how to play the parole officers and play the judge. He had what made him a success inside and out of the system — wit and nerve. Successful drug dealers love the thrill of the chase and pulling one over on authority figures. The system gives them plenty of opportunities to do just that. As Hardy notes, overcrowded dockets ensure that the people deciding what to do with offenders (especially the judges) don’t know very much about them. 

Sheila. Eighteen years old, daughter of a 37-year-old crack addict who had slept around for drugs, Sheila was desperate for love and focused on what she thought would save her from her mother’s life — a “don.” She saw her salvation by hooking up with a drug dealer with clout.

Sheila put it like this: The law had failed to protect African Americans, and it had failed to protect the very poor; therefore, anything forbidden by law — the drug trade, for one — was probably good. To Sheila, a don was a Robin Hood figure, a rebel living outside the law because the law was unjust.

Sheila knew how to manipulate the system. She would show up for court in a white button-up collar and long sleeves; she would call the judge “sir” or “madam” or “Your Honor.” She even got a job at Subway and a paycheck. But Sheila’s long-term goal was a “don,” and that mindset would be her stumbling block.

Hard Head. Jails are often temporary housing for the homeless. Hard Head was a survivor. He lived under a bridge and watched out for the other, young dopers. He spoke of redemption and always believed that his next dry-out would be his last. He wasn’t a bad guy, but there was nothing in the system that would change his revolving door. His risk factors didn’t change, just where he spent the night.

Javaron and Ronald. Two brothers; a mother who worked just to pay for their lawyers; epilepsy; puppies; murder. Just thinking about these individuals’ lives, it is easy to develop “compassion fatigue.” Probation officers try their hardest, but the system sucks up their souls, and, ultimately, the stories of their supervisees rarely have happy endings.

Yes, the story of the criminal justice system is told through the stories of the individuals in it. Yet Hardy allows the reader to see some greater truths through these stories: (1) the best thing prison can do for an addict is to keep him alive; (2) drug courts and mental health courts are good ideas, but they don’t work for everyone and we don’t invest enough in them to make a dent in the problems the criminal justice system faces; (3) cops have the easy job since they just have to catch the offender, and it’s the probation officers who are expected to find a way to fix them; and (4) if you don’t give people a second chance, then there really is no hope.

We have built a dysfunctional criminal justice system, and everyone knows it. Forty-three percent of parolees in Louisiana are back in prison in five years. Nationally, the parole revocation rate is 25 percent. The cost of supervising individuals is just a fraction of what it costs to incarcerate them, but we don’t make a sufficient investment in supervision. Those in the system see the reality, but they don’t give up hope. However, we have to start thinking out of the box. Whether it be embracing restorative justice programs or legalizing drugs, we have to do something.

Hardy left the probation office, but the lessons he learned do not have to be left behind. Reading his accounts can spread those lessons. Change is possible, but it will have to be one person at a time, no matter what system we embrace. You can’t change a system until you understand the people who compose it. Hardy helps us do just that.


Laurie L. Levenson is a professor of Law and the David W. Burcham Chair in Ethical Advocacy, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

While in law school, Laurie Levenson was chief articles editor of the UCLA Law Review. After graduation, she served as law clerk to the Honorable James Hunter III of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. In 1981, she was appointed assistant United States Attorney, Criminal Section, in Los Angeles, where she was a trial and appellate lawyer for eight years and attained the position of senior trial attorney and assistant division chief. Levenson was a member of the adjunct faculty of Southwestern University Law School from 1982 to ’89. She joined the Loyola faculty in 1989 and served as Loyola’s associate dean for academic affairs from 1996 to ’99. She has been a visiting professor at UCLA School of Law and a D & L Straus distinguished visiting professor at Pepperdine University School of Law. Levenson currently leads the following programs at Loyola Law School: Capital Habeas Litigation Clinic, The Fidler Institute annual symposium, and the Project for the Innocent.


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