As a teacher, I spend a lot of time doing what author Jason Hardy calls “disaster prevention”—desperately trying to catch kids before they fall through the cracks. In his debut book, The Second Chance Club: Hardship and Hope After Prison, Hardy details his own time in “disaster prevention” as a New Orleans probation and parole officer (PO). Though we’d like to hope that teachers’ and POs’ jobs wouldn’t overlap too much, it’s clear that both the educational and criminal justice systems often provide the least to those who need the most.
Readers who enjoyed Matthew Desmond’s Evicted will find a similar narrative voice in Hardy’s book. Weaving the experiences of his offenders with pertinent facts about the criminal justice system, Hardy removes the ability to blame each individual completely for their actions and informs us of the breadth and depth of systemic problems within law enforcement, addiction treatment, American poverty and racial disparity.
Throughout The Second Chance Club, it’s clear that Hardy’s work with his offenders resulted in meaningful relationships—relationships that become meaningful to the reader, as well. However, as with all jobs in public service, at the end of the day, empathy doesn’t solve problems. Money does. Hardy must frequently manage and anticipate problems in his caseload, deciding between helping one individual and eschewing another. Alongside him, readers will worry about who gets left behind and what happens when they do.
Though I don’t work in law enforcement, the language that Hardy uses seems eerily familiar. Lamenting the constant failures of a system intended to help the neediest folks, assessing individual needs and risks to determine whether or not to cut corners, making decisions that affect people’s lives without really having any proper training or experience—the “empathy exhaustion” that Hardy feels is the constant companion of so many in public service. In a world where my most underprivileged students have the potential to become Hardy’s next offenders, the need to resolve these systemic incongruities is greater than ever, as The Second Chance Club makes vividly clear.