University of Chicago Legal Forum


Playing off a scene in The Wire wherein prison inmates discuss whether American lives have “second acts,” this essay considers psychological and legal issues at play in people’s efforts to turn their lives around, from bad to good. In the first half of the essay, a professor of psychology discusses empirical research into redemptive life stories in which people find positive meaning in suffering and/or transform their lives from failure to relative success. While examples of redemptive life stories may be found in The Wire, making good on second chances seems to be a relatively rare occurrence. In the second half, a federal judge considers the issue of second chances in the American legal system, focusing on the issue of sentencing. Like many of the drug offenders in The Wire, young men sentenced for crimes today have often suffered from a litany of setbacks and deprivations in life. The effort to rehabilitate these offenders must be balanced against competing sentencing goals that involve, for example, deterrence and payback. As in the television series, the possibilities of making good on second chances may be vanishingly rare in the real lives of offenders today.

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