Movies about schools often contain a crucial scene in which a student about to be expelled for acting badly begs for a second chance. When consulted, an unlikeable severe teacher is strongly opposed, a sympathetic young teacher appeals for the student, and finally the strict but fair head sees something special in the student and grants a second chance. And so opens the path to a glorious career.
In Australia today this scene is played out in public opinion about the treatment of young people who have broken the law. Much of the media takes the side of the unlikeable severe teacher, demanding that they be locked up in order to keep society safe and to punish them for what they have done. They see no good in them.
Those more familiar with the lives of young people see in them something precious and seeds that may flower if they are accompanied and helped to take responsibility for their actions and to connect with society. If given a second chance they can thrive. This is the heart of the Jesuit Social Services campaign #WorthASecondChance.
To those who support harsher punishment for young people who break the law, this attitude can seem woolly headed and irresponsible. They think that it puts the community at risk from further crime and that second chances are a sign of weakness. The problem with that view is that we are all sinners and rely on second chances to live. If there were no second chance, no forgetting, no opportunity to start again, no kid would still be living at home, divorces would multiply, few employees would keep their job, the gaols would be overflowing with the resentful and hopeless, and the devils would have to work double-shifts stoking the fires of hell.
The reason why we give people a second chance is that we see goodness and possibility in them. Each person has a unique value. Christians believe that God loves each of us personally and has a personal destiny for us. God loves each of us enough to send Jesus to join us and die for us. God does not take account of our record, and neither do we take account of our children’s misdemeanours. We encourage them to take responsibility for their actions, to say sorry when they act badly, wipe the slate and give them a second chance. In that way they learn that they are special to us and they learn how to treat other people with respect.
That is why we should give children a second chance when they offend. Often they get into trouble because they have grown in unpredictable and violent homes and have not learned to respect others. They need people to teach them and accompany them to learn ways of being human.
Certainly the community needs to be protected and they need to take responsibility for their actions. But our response to them need to recognise that their behaviour often has its origins in disadvantage – perhaps in a dysfunctional and violent family. Many lack of the necessary support to take advantage of education, mental and physical illness or addiction. With accompaniment and support they can connect with society. Giving them a second chance recognises that they are precious and the capacity to be a gift to society.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.