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Another Voice: Does everyone deserve a second chance?

By Jeffrey M. Bowen

Every day I encounter second chances.  If I burn the breakfast toast, miss my plane flight, or encounter a salesperson who ignores me, is there another chance to correct the situation?  I hope so, but it depends on the circumstance.  The toast can be replaced easily.  A missed flight may be rescheduled with a transaction fee.   I may give a negligent salesperson a second chance, but I also have the choices of complaining to the manager or finding another store.

Do all these daily choices shape our views about second chances?  Very definitely, because the freedoms of American life enrich us with so many options.  However, do we honestly believe everyone deserves a second chance?  Answers reveal our national character.

As a lifelong educator, I have found that second chances produce cognitive dissonance in our schools.  We struggle to hold contradictory ideas at the same time.  One-time on-demand tests are a traditional way of measuring what has been learned.  Standardized testing is built on this approach, and it works well as a way to sort and select students.  In contrast is mastery learning where teachers use multiple informal assessments to gauge progress toward learning goals, as they coach, correct mistakes and give feedback along the way.

On a much broader scale, second chance dissonance extends across the landscape of national policy. Incarceration highlights the issues.  We imprison our population at an awesome rate.  Our penal population is well over two million, and we house 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.  Our incarceration rate is currently three times higher than at any time in the last century.  We act on the belief that imprisoning perpetrators for breaking the law is a legitimate punishment, and that threat of it will prevent lawlessness. Ultimately, a release from prison is supposed to have taught a lesson that improves the odds for second chances.  It is startling that about two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested within three years.

More promising, according to Prison Policy Initiatives, are recent enactments by 23 states to reduce barriers faced by those with criminal records in the workplace and elsewhere.  Mostly this involves sealing or expunging records.  Hopes for rehabilitation and second chances are certainly enhanced by pardons, probation, mentoring, mental health counseling, additional education and skill training while still in prison.

Marriage, divorce, and remarriage provide a very different perspective on second chances.  According to Pew surveys, about half of Americans over 18 were married in 2016.  Foregoing marriage has increased among the young, while divorce rates have risen among older Americans.  Relative to second chances, about four of every 10 marriages these days involve remarriage, and half of those involve both spouses.  As of 2013, an almost unbelievable 23 percent of the married had been married before.  Interestingly, men seem much more interested this second chance than women.

Whether we are considering prison pardons or remarriage, a lot of forgiveness is necessary.  Psychologists strongly recommend it because this gives us a strong sense of well-being, happiness, and even redemption.  By forgiving often, we save emotional energy and demonstrate the belief that people can learn from their mistakes.

Strong opinions about second chances are institutionalized in our American value systems.  For me, second chances should never be wasted.  They should not become excuses to sluff off, but rather should be opportunities to learn and improve.  I believe that we are all fallible and prone to mistakes.  Given a second chance combined with sufficient inspiration and guidance, lives can be turned around.  Ultimately, the second chance is up to us.

Jeffrey M. Bowen is retired as superintendent of the Pioneer Central School District and serves as a charter school principal mentor and evaluator.

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