A story about second chances — and who gets to give them

by | Jan 22, 2023 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Who deserves a second chance? I think most people would answer, “most people.”

Last weekend, inside Nazarene Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit, a group of folks sat in a circle and put this theory to the test. Filling one chair was Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein. Filling the others were former prisoners of the criminal justice system and their advocates. Even the pastor had done time behind bars.

The meeting was supposed to last an hour.

It went on for nearly four.

Now, we’ll get to what happened in a moment. But let’s be honest. When it comes to second chances, we Americans afford them all the time. Athletes who get in off-field trouble. Actors who misbehave. Media types who throw tantrums. Politicians exposed as liars.

They get second chances, because we, the public, are the ones doing the forgiving. We’re the ones continuing to watch, continuing to pay for tickets, continuing to vote.

On the other hand, in smaller, less public places, private offices and local neighborhoods, people can be less forgiving. One strike and you’re gone.

So the question of second chances may be less about “Who deserves one?” than “Who decides who deserves one?”

This is a stickier wicket.

How quickly the tables have turned

Recently, here in Michigan, we had a showdown on this issue. Bernstein, recently reelected to the state Supreme Court, expressed, in an interview, his disgust at the hiring of a former criminal named Pete Martel as a law clerk for fellow-Justice Kyra Harris Bolden.

Martel, as a young man, had been involved in a convenience store robbery with some friends. In fleeing the police, he shot at a cruiser.

No one was hurt. But Martel went to prison, then tried to escape. He spent 14 years behind bars, 10 of those in solitary confinement. When he got out, he began to rebuild his life. A formerly bad student, he studied, got his college degree and eventually graduated law school from Wayne State. He became an advocate for those still behind bars. He even worked in the State Appellate Defender Office.

But Bernstein was unmoved. While believing in second chances, he said, he felt Martel did not deserve the prestigious law clerk position.

“There are certain jobs you should never be allowed to have after you shoot at a police officer, and one of them is clerking for the highest court in the state,” Bernstein told the Detroit News.

Martel quickly resigned.

So, at that moment, it seemed the person deciding on second chances was Bernstein. But the backlash against him was swift. Many who had voted for him said they felt betrayed. He was bashed in the media. He was criticized heavily by prisoner advocates and others.

Days later, Bernstein apologized — to the public, to Bolden, and to Martel. He said he had overstepped, and that he wanted to be better in the future.

Suddenly, he was the one seeking redemption.

A different type of justice

Darryl Woods knows a lot about that subject. He spent nearly 30 years in prison for a crime he maintains he did not commit. His sentence was overturned once, and he was ultimately granted commutation in 2019 by then-Gov. Rick Snyder.

Instead of being bitter, Woods has devoted his life to breaking down the barriers and misconceptions about “returning citizens,” a better moniker than “ex-cons.” He is, amongst other duties, the director of the Better Together program of SAY Detroit, which brings police officers and at-risk citizens together for meals and fellowship.

Woods was one of the organizers of that meeting at Nazarene. Judge Bernstein sat in one chair. Folks like Woods surrounded him.

How did it go?

“It was a very tough conversation,” Woods said. “But I’m telling you, by the end, there was not a dry eye in the room.

“We had former (prisoners) who were now businesspeople, we had the pastor who had been in jail himself. We all told Justice Bernstein what it was like returning to society, and how what he said about Pete Martel sounded like it was OK for certain people in society to still be segregated. That they couldn’t have certain jobs. It’s already tough for people who return to society from prison to be able to do things like get housing. He was able to hear that.

“He hung onto every word that everybody spoke. He sat there and took it. By the end, he was hugging people and weeping in their arms. He said he deeply regretted what had happened. He didn’t mean it. He was deeply sorry.”

Hmm. Aren’t those the words we often hear from criminals who finish their sentences? It’s easy to judge others when you’ve never made a mistake. But once you do, you don’t want to forever be judged by that one misstep. I understand those who push to severely punish repeat criminals. Some people do not seem rehabable. But shouldn’t that make those who try even more worthy of a shot? 

I asked Woods whether he felt that Bernstein should be forgiven.

“Absolutely. Everybody in that room believed in redemption. We all listened to him, especially at the end, when he said, ‘I now know how it feels to want a second chance.’ ”

We like to think that we are all so different, that status, education or wealth separate us. But we can all switch positions so fast in this life. The saints become the sinners, the sinners become the forgivers. Woods said that he and Bernstein have met two more times since last Saturday, and they are developing a relationship that probably never would have started if not for this incident.

Second chances work in strange ways. But we are all worthy of them, judges and returning citizens alike.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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