A Second Chance Is Not Equal To A Fair Chance

Sydney Heller
4 min readSep 20, 2021
Photo by fauxels from Pexels
Photo by fauxels from Pexels

Nate spent 22 years in prison. He now earns a living wage to support himself and his family at a job that makes him feel personally and professionally fulfilled. Not exactly the mantra we’ve all heard about the difficulties of being system-impacted and finding success, right? In the criminal justice reform and DEI spaces, the idea of “second chance” hiring is increasingly being discussed and adopted across industries in the United States. But are we talking about it in the right way? Is “second chance” hiring really what we are trying to achieve; or is it something far more equitable and just?

I am the Chief Program Officer at The Last Mile (TLM), a non-profit based in San Francisco, where we build and operate in-prison technical bootcamps as well as professional development and post-incarceration reentry support for participants. Learning about the growing number of organizations addressing and breaking down barriers to employment for justice-impacted individuals motivates me in my work to continue building towards equitable hiring. Returned citizens in our communities encounter countless challenges when applying for jobs. Issues range from overly aggressive background checks, to the social stigma of being formerly incarcerated, to prejudices against those who are justice-impacted.

From my experience, the intention behind “second chance” hiring is often the right one — coming from a desire to create equitable job opportunities for candidates. However, the language is not a good fit. One of the things I have learned during my tenure with TLM is that language has the power to influence how we think, perceive, and ultimately act and respond to things in our environment. In the criminal justice reform space, conversations often include dehumanizing language and labels. From language that isn’t people-first, to phrases that assume negative intent, the effect of these depraved labels impacts how we view and treat system-impacted individuals. Even in the context of people trying to do the right thing, such as hiring people with lived experience of incarceration, the words we use impact the way those individuals are perceived even before they interview.

Consider using the phrase “fair chance”, over “second chance”. For starters, the phrase “second chance”, implies that an individual had an unsuccessful “first” chance. The unfortunate reality in the United States is that widespread racially motivated police violence and a deeply rooted school-to-prison pipeline have created a society in which not everyone has had access to a real first chance.

not everyone has had access to a real first chance

Moreover, my discomfort with the phrase “second chance” hiring is what it implies. Even before the hiring process begins, we are labeling the candidate by events in their past — the first chance that we are allowing them to do over. Why is the name of the entire hiring practice based on a negative judgement about the candidate’s past? Rather than looking at the candidate and how many “chances” they have and how many more we are so graciously willing to give them, why aren’t we looking at ourselves: our systems and our hiring practices? Why isn’t it our responsibility to create goals for fair hiring practices for all candidates?

A candidate who walks into a “second chance” interview faces prejudices and biases before they even enter the room. A candidate who walks into a “fair chance” interview, ideally walks into the same interview as any other candidate. Essentially, “fair chance” hiring is an ideal that, in practice, moves us towards true equity. The phrase “second chance” hiring is a temporary fix that does not address the realities of societal failures, and thus is not a sustainable solution. The future must be a world where hiring practices everywhere present a fair chance to all candidates.

fair chance hiring is an ideal that, in practice, moves us towards true equity

When I first started working with TLM inside San Quentin State Prison, I also once had the mentality that the people in our classrooms deserved a second chance. While visiting other TLM classrooms across 5 states and speaking with hundreds of our students, I received quite a bit of education. One piece of feedback that I encounter everywhere is very clear: “Don’t treat me like I am damaged goods”, “Don’t go easy on me because you think I can’t take it”, and “Give me a chance, like everyone else.” Our students don’t want to be thought of as less capable, or have an asterisk put on their education. They want to learn the same content and achieve the same degrees and prestige within their in-prison classroom as computer science students at MIT and UC Berkeley.

Returned citizens in our community hold positions as web developers, senior software engineers, program managers, and executive directors not because someone gave them a piece of charity and provided them with a second chance; instead, in spite of being forced to overcome tremendous adversity and barriers in our society, they earned these positions based on their own merit and abilities.

they earned these positions based on their own merit and abilities

So the next time you find yourself using the phrase “second chance” hiring, take a step back and decide if you really mean to be qualifying someone else’s past, or if you are talking about your efforts to help create a society with equitable opportunities where our hiring practices offer a fair chance to all candidates.



Sydney Heller

Social justice and reentry industry executive trying to create a better, equitable world through access to education and fair chance hiring.