JASON HARDY DOESN’T PRETEND to know the solution to America’s criminal justice problem. There are a little more than two pages of policy proposals buried in the epilogue of The Second Chance Club: Hardship and Hope After Prison, Hardy’s memoir about his time as a probation and parole officer in New Orleans. Any more would be unnecessary and disingenuous. Hardy spends readers’ time more wisely, recounting in graphic detail the stories of a handful of parolees he worked to rehabilitate.
While their hard-luck stories differ, each is connected by their common struggle to overcome poverty and the parole system’s inability to provide adequate assistance. The system’s inadequacy is examined at great length, but the extent of the problem is too overwhelming to arrive at any sort of resolution. The book shows readers the desperate need for criminal justice reform and leaves them flailing, like its author, for a starting point.
When Hardy got a job with the Louisiana Division of Probation and Parole in his late 20s, he was trying to get himself on his feet after a failed attempt at a teaching career. All he needed was a bachelor’s degree, a clean record, and the ability to quit his job as a watch salesman at JCPenney on short notice. The pay wasn’t great, and the work wasn’t glamorous, but it seemed like an opportunity to contribute to the social good. During his first weeks, some of Hardy’s co-workers adopted him as an informal mentee and shared the philosophies they’d developed on the job. They don’t receive as much attention in the book as Hardy’s caseload, but these officemates provide the most elucidating insight into the function of the parole system. Inasmuch as ideology affected the way different officers approached their work, it played an insignificant role in outcomes for their parolees.
Hardy and his liberal co-workers sympathized with their parolees by faulting the structural conditions that drive people to commit crimes, while their more conservative co-workers emphasized the role of personal choice in criminal behavior and instructed their parolees to pick themselves up and become productive members of society. Either way, it didn’t matter because every parole officer lacked enough resources to provide adequate assistance to the people they were meant to serve, and they all recognized it. Early in the book, Hardy remarks that officers would rely on disparaging comments about the insufficiency of their work to establish rapport with parolees.
The job boiled down to disaster prevention. Hardy and his co-workers found ways to come to terms with the limitations of their position and to take pride in doing the most good they were capable of, but as a reader it is difficult to put faith in the probation and parole system as a serious rehabilitative program based on the image portrayed in the book. Each parole officer was responsible for supervising 220 parolees, and each parolee presented their own unique set of needs. Hardy did his best to assist people struggling with homelessness, mental illness, drug addiction, abusive relationships, and countless other conditions that should seemingly require greater expertise than that required to become a probation and parole officer. The most effective approach to the job, Hardy discovered, was to let parolees vent their frustrations to him like a sort of unlicensed therapist, then scramble to find social services for those at maximum risk of recidivism.
It requires unhealthy amounts of optimism to find happy endings in the stories of Hardy’s parolees. Most of the time, the best-case scenario looks as bleak as making sure someone can continue sleeping under a bridge rather than in a jail cell. It feels like a miracle when Hardy reveals that he was able to help one of his parolees, a young girl, get a job at Subway and enroll in counseling.
The paradoxes of the job roused sharp conflict in Hardy when he found himself struggling to keep some parolees from overdosing and others from resorting to drug dealing. He found himself caring for the well-being of each of the people he served, a dangerous place to be, and it was impossible to reconcile the fact that helping some of them stay out of jail could potentially lead to the deaths of others. In the end, he couldn’t decide whether it was right to deny some parolees the opportunity to reform themselves for the good of the greater community.
This conundrum makes for a compelling narrative, but it also illustrates the unfair position of parole officers. Hardy was tasked with getting drug abusers sober and drug dealers into legitimate work, but he wasn’t given the capacity to influence the conditions that cause people to deal and abuse drugs in the first place. On the contrary, he was forced to work against a system that seeks to punish those who need help. When he tried to secure mental health care for one of his parolees struggling with addiction, Hardy inadvertently set him up to confess disturbing thoughts to a counsellor who was then forced to recommend he be taken into custody. In rare circumstances when he was able to find employers willing to hire workers with criminal records, it was impossible to incentivize most drug dealers to get legitimate jobs because they weren’t willing to give up their upwardly mobile lifestyles for undignified, low-paying work.
Hardy diagnoses the fundamental problem: “Poverty was the institution that truly shaped the men and women under my supervision.” The specifics varied, but every parolee was constrained by the struggle to survive. The parole system asked them to improve themselves, but it only provided disaster prevention to the most severe cases. The most dedicated parole officers spent their careers hunting for solutions that never appeared and assumed responsibility for the catastrophes that occurred in the communities they served. Hardy spends a significant portion of the book detailing how the job consumed his thoughts by forcing an acute awareness of his powerlessness against social ills that, once witnessed firsthand, can’t be blocked out.
It would be overwhelming to untangle the litany of inadequacies and injustices Hardy observes throughout the book, and impossible to do so in addition to the frantic disaster prevention that occupies most of a parole officer’s time. In this respect, the structure of the book mirrors Hardy’s experience working in the criminal justice system. It provides a masterful portrait of individuals living in poverty, explains how their circumstances funneled them into the system, expresses the urgent need to fix things, but struggles to find any resolution amid the chaos.
The problem is too big for individuals to solve, yet that is what the parole system asks its employees to do. As Hardy puts it, “They hadn’t hired us because of our policy chops. We weren’t getting paid to solve macro-level problems. In fact, P&P was as micro as it got.” Readers might come away with the impression that no one is getting paid to solve the macro-level problems. Parole officers are working to rehabilitate criminals, but no one is working to make it possible for them to do their job well. This might be because it is easier to comprehend issues on the level of the individual. When Hardy tells the story of Hard Head, a homeless Vietnam veteran addicted to heroin, readers are able to follow his trajectory from panhandling on the street to discovering faith, receiving a housing voucher, and helping younger addicts get sober. We can follow his story and see where things went wrong and where they went right just as we would a character in a novel.
But it is much more difficult to extrapolate this portrait into a useful comprehension of where and how the social fabric needs mending. Throughout the book, Hardy contemplates many policy objectives, but remains indecisive about most of them. Though frustrated with lawmakers’ inaction, he worries that reforms such as decriminalization and full legalization of drugs could have unpredictable consequences for impoverished addicts. In a passage radiating frustration, he says, “I resigned myself to going without a grand vision of the solution to America’s drug problem. When I encountered drug problems on the job, I went case by case. I used my discretion.”
Perhaps the most important takeaway from The Second Chance Club is Hardy’s solemn acknowledgment that, although it was the force that underpinned his work, he is an expert in the parole system, not poverty, and the success of the former is dependent on the reduction of the latter. But even though solutions may not be apparent, books like this one do some good because they remind us, “If we haven’t discovered cures for all our social ills, we do know how to reduce the harm caused by many of them.”