The Trade-Off of Second Chances

Calvin Duncan was exonerated after serving 28 years in prison. He could have been bitter after his wrongful conviction, but instead he put his energies toward something better. He is now Calvin Duncan, J.D.

These are the stories that should warm our hearts and restore our faith in humanity, if not the legal system that stole 28 years of his life. Congratulations, Calvin Duncan. I wish you every success and as good and fulfilling a life as you can possibly enjoy.

But not everyone has a storybook ending.

Alton Mills, a 54-year-old man whose federal life sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama in 2015, now faces the potential of another life sentence after officials accused him of shooting and gravely wounding a woman on an expressway in suburban Chicago this week.

Mills was held without bail by Judge Thomas Carroll during a bond hearing on Tuesday. Prosecutors told Carroll that the woman Mills allegedly shot was brain dead. She was not expected to survive.

Mills was convicted in 1994 of selling coke, as a nobody runner at the bottom of an indictment, and was given a life sentence under the then-mandatory sentencing guidelines. President Obama commuted his sentence. Senator Dick Durban called him “an overlooked casualty in our ‘war on drugs.’” After his release, he went to work for the Chicago Transit Authority and was an advocate against mandatory minimums. Sheepskin notwithstanding, he too appeared to be a success story for second chances, until he wasn’t.

Early Sunday morning, May 14, three friends left a nightclub in south suburban Harvey, and one of them drove the group home. As their Ford Explorer neared the ramp to I-57, the driver pulled up behind Mills’ SUV at a red light, Assistant State’s Attorney Kathryn Morrissey said during Mills’ bail hearing this week.

Mills’ car didn’t move when the light turned green, so the Explorer’s driver pulled around and passed without screaming or honking, according to Morrissey. She said Mills sped to catch up to the Explorer, pulled up next to them, and fired shots from his driver’s window.

A bullet struck a woman sleeping in the Explorer’s back seat in the head, Morrissey said. The Explorer’s front passenger told police that the shooter was an older Black man with a salt and pepper beard. She also took a blurry picture of the gunman’s license plate and recorded a video in which she read the license plate number out loud.

Why did this happen? Who knows, but the brain dead woman from the other car, unlikely to survive, won’t be able to ask this question, or grow up and get to live her life.

Mills was little more than a low-level drug courier who made $300 a week, Durbin wrote.

“I hung out with a bunch of goldfishes that was dealing with some sharks, and the sharks caught the goldfishes up and we were the ones that ended up going to prison,” Mills said in an MSNBC interview after his release.

“Mr. Mills is now 46 years old, and studies demonstrate that ex-offenders ‘age-out’ of crime and that recidivism rates decline dramatically with age,” Durbin argued in his letter to Obama. Mills had bettered himself in prison and had strong community support waiting for him in Chicago, the senator wrote.

One of the hardest things to accept is that sound policies will sometimes end in tragedy. Just as the occasional defendant released without bail will commit a heinous crime, the policy is guided by the thousands released who don’t. But there will always be some who make us regret the policy choice.

The same is true of releasing people from prison, whether because their convictions were deeply flawed (even though there may be no affirmative proof of innocence) or because they were given Draconian sentences. Whether it’s second chances, or commutations, or exoneration, a trade-off is made. We take a risk by putting them back on the streets after years, often decades, in prison, to compensate for the harshness with which they were treated at the time. As heads cool later, we can appreciate that it was too cruel, too severe, and the human being deserved a chance to breathe free air.

And sometimes, it will end up with someone like a brain dead young girl in a back seat.

Some will argue that if it saves one person from being harmed, it’s worth it to keep prisoners locked away forever, even if it is outrageously harsh. For the sake of safety, the worthy are sacrificed along with the unworthy. Better to keep 10 rehabilitated and decent human beings in prison than let one out who will commit a crime.

It was always going to happen. There will always be outliers whose story do not end in a law school diploma, but in a cell. A mature society realizes that the system is imperfect, and will always be imperfect. But we make a decision, a trade-off, of whether to sacrifice those ten because there will always be that one who does wrong.

At Mills’ 1994 sentencing hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Marvin Aspen said, “If I were free to sentence [Mr. Mills] … it would be for something other than life.”

In 1994, no one knew what would become of Mills. Maybe, but for a momentary lack of impulse control, he would have worked at the Chicago Transit Authority until they threw him a retirement party, and then spent the rest of his life bouncing a grandchild on his knee. It didn’t work out that way. It happens. But it is not an indictment of revisiting wrongful convictions, ending outrageously harsh sentencing and mandatory minimums, or give prisoners second chances. It’s just a terrible collateral consequence of being human and an imperfect system.

5 thoughts on “The Trade-Off of Second Chances

  1. Hal

    “Better to keep 10 rehabilitated and decent human beings in prison than let one out who will commit a crime.”

    JMO, but I prefer Blackstone’s formulation.

  2. Eliot J Clingman

    Real men don’t do trade-offs! Why not put all persons between the ages of 16 and 75 in solitary confinement? Since all prison guards will be incarcerated under this system, we will have robots managing the prisons.The assault rate will go down to zero, which is a very civilized statistic.

  3. S_J

    I feel like I am late to this comment-thread.

    Seeing this post, in juxtaposition to a post “Guns in the hands of Children” a few items down, leaves me wondering.

    One of these two men committed a crime with a gun after having a sentence commuted. How did he acquire that gun?

    With a conviction and a commuted sentence on his record, he ought to be denied purchase at any licensed firearms store.

    It is likely that he acquired the gun from a gray-market (or black-market) source.

    I think this is a good example of why most arguments about gun laws seem pointless. The kind of people who ought to be dissuaded by restrictive gun laws seem to have access on the illegal market.


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