Second Chances are Usually Last Chances in Court

We all make mistakes. In most justice systems, this is taken into account when figuring out what to do with the guilty. If someone doesn’t demonstrate a history of reckless or otherwise risky behavior in pursuit of personal gain, most judges and prosecutors are willing to work out a deal.

For first time offenders, this could mean a variety of things depending on the offense. It might be a reduced sentence, a suspended sentence, probation, court-ordered rehab or court-ordered classes. Whatever the result, it is often times significantly less than what a habitual offender would have received under otherwise similar circumstances.

Therein lies the all-too-often ignored aspect of second chances in the justice system; many first-time offenders feel as though this leniency is a reflection of all interactions with the courts – that they can expect to get treated the same next time this happens. More times than not, they discover they were wrong if this return trip to court ends up coming true.

In short, second chances are usually last chances in court. Repeat offenders signal the need for a stiffer penalty. With this in mind, it’s critical for those standing guilty before a judge for the first time do what it takes to ensure a second chance will not be squandered.


Court-ordered treatment is becoming increasingly common for nonviolent offenders in possession of small amounts of narcotics and/or found to test positive for use. This is a welcome change from decades of throwing the book at these individuals, who are often times at the mercy of a substance abuse problem.

Pioneers in addiction recovery, such as Care Forward Beverly Hills rehab, have helped to expand treatment solutions to a broader range of society, not just the privileged one percent. Demographic groups formerly disproportionately imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses are finally getting the treatment they need, which had been difficult if not impossible for them to access in decades past.

However, unlike those in upper-middle to high-income brackets, working-class first-time nonviolent drug offenders don’t have the benefits associated with luxury lifestyles. In short, treatment follow-ups have to fit into a busy work schedule if one exists and be fulfilled no matter how exhausted one is from maintaining the ordinary obligations of life with a modest to low-level income. It’s unlikely a judge will continue to show patience to someone failing to attend treatment, regardless of their life circumstances.


Sometimes it’s not a question of whether there will be punishment, but rather a question of how much or what kind. This is particularly true for first-time offenders guilty of a major nonviolent crime, like burglary or fraud. The court may deem the motive behind such crimes to be great enough to warrant a prison sentence even with no prior arrests or convictions.

Despite a long history of the opposite, today’s judges are increasingly less likely to throw the book at nonviolent offenders. It still happens, but fewer numbers of first-time burglars and fraudsters are going to the same facilities housing bank robbers, murderers, and other violent convicts. Instead, these types are sent to medium to low-security prisons where things are less locked down and controlled. It’s still a prison, but it’s not the extreme environments often seen in television documentaries.

The risk for first-time offenders in this situation is getting mixed up in “prison politics” – working in tandem with fellow inmates to perpetuate criminal activity within the facility, often in competition with other “gangs” divided by race. It’s here where someone doing 18 months for breaking and entering can wind up doing something to not only extend their sentence but get transferred to a harsher facility. It might seem tempting to get involved in this stuff to pass the time, but it’s far better to keep your head down and nose clean for the duration of your stay behind bars.

Ultimately, one only need to look at it from the perspective of career judges and prosecutors. They encounter a huge spectrum of wrongdoers and prefer to focus on the true villains in society, not the relatively harmless troublemakers out there. But if you continue to use up their time due to an inability to learn from your mistakes and, more importantly, a failure to take advantage of the second chance provided, they won’t hesitate to pursue more aggressive ways of holding you accountable.

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