Unanswered Questions: Second Chances

Justice Policy Institute
4 min readMay 26, 2023

By: Troy Burner

The Friday before memorial day weekend is a stark reminder in my life. Twenty-nine years ago today, I woke up free, but before the day was over — I was a convicted felon facing a mandatory life sentence. Twenty-nine years ago, my first chance dissolved in front of me. I write this reflection looking back at that day, and realizing that my second chance was only made possible because I never had a first.

The Prison Fellowship founded Second Chance Month in 2017 to raise awareness and improve perceptions of people with a criminal record, encourage second chance opportunities, and drive momentum for policy change throughout the country. Additionally, on March 31, 2023, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. made the Presidential Proclamation that April is Second Chance Month. As someone who was a beneficiary of a ‘second chance’ reform — I commend these recognitions.

After 25 years, I was resentenced and released from the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons on November 5th, 2018. This was made possible because DC enacted the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act of 2018 (IRAA), when DC aligned itself with recent Supreme Court precedents that categorically asserted that youth should be treated differently. This offered, not only me, but thousands of others around the country, a second chance.

But this notion of second chances raises two important unanswered questions, where was our first chance, and who are second chances truly for?

Where was our first chance?

Why did we need the Supreme Court to rule on youthfulness, when society and common sense already concluded that kids are different. We don’t allow kids to vote; drive until a certain age; drink; or fight for our country. Children are the most vulnerable of citizens, yet they do not receive the protections reflective of that status. The late great Tupac Shakur once said, “America eats its babies.” That statement was not an analogy, but it is an actuality. From economic and academic oppression to the cradle-to-prison pipeline, these are all indicators that Black and Brown youth never had a first chance.

When children are treated as adults without considerations to the mitigating factors of youth, maturity, and trauma experienced, it is a crime against humanity. The Supreme Court has stopped draconian punishments from occurring, and some states have leveraged that decision to give second chances. But we need to shift our focus to give priority to youth, and anyone caught up in the justice pipeline, a true first chance.

While I was released pursuant to IRAA, the “stigma and stain” of being a convicted felon, is immeasurable. This was further amplified because I was wrongfully convicted. In 2020, my wrongful conviction was overturned, and I was exonerated, but the price I paid cannot be minimized. Prior to my arrest, I worked for the D.C. Department of Public and Assisted Housing, a month away from being certified in Home Building and Maintenance Repair. I was an amateur boxer with professional aspirations, I had enrolled in the upcoming semester of junior college, and I newly discovered I was a father of a 4-year-old daughter.

But as a youth, my first chance at life was stripped away. During the investigation, the FBI and Metropolitan Police Department kept saying, “we know that you had nothing to do with this shooting, but we need your help.” So, as a youth, wrongfully convicted, sentenced to decades and spending my formative years in prison — my first chance was obliterated. When the conversations on reforms are being had, we must look at them all in their entirety.

Who are second chances truly for?

Once I was released, my boots were immediately on the ground, joining the advocacy and reform efforts for second chances and fundamental fairness. I did all this while in an education program, but I was unemployed, had two supervision visits per week, had to provide urine samples to a parole officer during class hours, and was denied housing — just a few of the barriers that served as a form of continued incarceration, impacting my second chance.

While President Biden’s noble proclamation is appreciated, the irony must be realized. In the same month that President Biden proclaimed April 2023 “Second Chance Month,” he supported a resolution to block the District of Columbia’s Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022 (RCCA), just a few weeks prior. I testified in the local level hearings in support of outlining how the ambiguous, unconstitutional, and archaic District code contributed to my wrongful conviction, and stripped thousands, including myself, of their first chance. It often feels like the true “second chance” is for the government to take accountability and atone for its sins of the past and present, and not repeat them in the future.

Contrary to the fear mongering rhetoric, the RCCA is about second chances. This is a chance to address the issues from tough on crime, and anti-Black and Brown policies. It was a chance to acknowledge and clean up the devastation caused by hundreds of other policy makers over the decades. This was a chance to invest in our community, rather than incarcerating them, by any means necessary. This was the second chance to lessen the likelihood that what happened to me would happen to someone else. Decision makers need to revitalize first chance policies, not block them.

They celebrate second chance, all while standing in the way.

To wrap up this reflection:

Second chances should not only be celebrated in April, but they should be engrained in all reforms, with the intention of lifting first chances for the generations to follow. A second chance is a chance to grow, to heal, to restore, repair, and bring closure to tragedy — for humans and government.

#Notasbadasourworstmistake #ReflectionsofanInnocentmanInnocentMind

Troy Burner is an Associate at the Justice Policy Institute. He was released from prison on November 5, 2018 and was fully exonerated in March 2020.



Justice Policy Institute

Reducing society’s reliance on incarceration and the justice system. We inform policymakers, advocates and the media about fair and effective justice reforms.