Dwayne Betts paid his dues to society for stealing a car when he was 16 years old, serving 8 years in prison. Instead of returning to a life of crime, Dwayne went on to become an award-winning poet, graduated from Yale Law School, and passed the Connecticut bar exam.
Sadly, the state bar has now provisionally denied him admission based on a 20-year-old conviction. But if we don’t allow people with criminal records to re-enter society after serving their terms (through employment, housing, education, or voting), how can we be surprised when they reoffend?
As a fellow Yale graduate and a Commissioner for the San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department, I know that what Dwayne has accomplished is no easy feat. He took advantage of every opportunity we give juvenile offenders to help them make positive choices. But instead of celebrating his accomplishments, he’s being told he can’t become a lawyer because of a mistake he made 20 years ago.
Read his inspiring transformation story below:
In 1996, when Reginald Dwayne Betts was being sentenced to nine years in prison for a carjacking, the judge handing down the ruling told the 16 year old: “I don’t have any illusions that the penitentiary is going to help you, but you can get something out of it if you want to.”
The judge probably had, at best, a high school equivalency diploma in mind for Mr. Betts. Mr. Betts had bigger ambitions.
It began with a book called “The Black Poets,” which someone slipped under his cell door during the year he spent in solitary confinement. “That’s the book that changed my life,” he has said of the anthology. “It introduced me to Etheridge Knight, to Rob Hayden, Lucille Clifton, Sonia Sanchez and so many countless black writers and black poets that really shaped who it is that I wanted to be in the world.”
After his release in 2005, he wrote two books of critically acclaimed poetry and a memoir. He got a B.A. and an M.F.A., and became a Radcliffe fellow at Harvard. Last May, he graduated from Yale Law School. Oh, and along the way, he became a husband and a father to two boys; tellingly, this is the first accomplishment he lists on his website’s biography page.
In February, Mr. Betts passed the Connecticut state bar exam and has been working as a public defender in New Haven, trying, as he put it in a recent essay, “to do something to halt the herding of young black people behind bars.” As his lawyer, William Dow III, has said, “He personifies what people talk about when they speak of second chances.” If someone hasn’t yet bought the rights to Mr. Betts’s life story, many, many people in Hollywood deserve to be fired.
Dwayne Betts is the kind of man who should be receiving awards from the Connecticut bar. Instead, he hasn’t been admitted.
Last week, Mr. Betts got a letter saying as much, referring him to Article VI of the Bar Examining Committee’s regulations, which states that “a record manifesting a significant deficiency in the honesty, trustworthiness, diligence or reliability of an applicant may constitute a basis for denial of admission.” A committee composed of judges and lawyers is now reviewing whether Mr. Betts is of “good moral character.” Because he is a former felon, there isn’t a presumption of fitness to practice law. He has to prove it with “clear and convincing evidence.”
Here’s a piece of advice for the committee: Type “Dwayne Betts” into Google.
His incredible life is proof that a person can truly rehabilitate himself. But the Connecticut bar is sending the opposite message: that a felony is a life sentence.
James Forman Jr., who taught Mr. Betts at Yale, told me that he was “thrilled” to be able to serve as a reference for his application to the bar and that he is “outraged” that his former student wasn’t admitted in the first instance.
“We’re saying to somebody who, 20 years after committing a crime, who has compiled this incredible record, that they still carry with them a stigma and a label saying ‘We are always going to judge you differently.’ ”
Mr. Forman is confident the Yale graduate will be admitted, but says that this episode raises a larger question beyond Mr. Betts. “We are having a national conversation right now about our criminal justice system, and when bar associations take these kinds of positions, we are signaling to the rest of America,” he said.
“We can signal to the world that we want to be leaders in extending second chances and mercy. Or we can signal to the world that we are caught up in the mind-set of 20 or 30 years ago.”
Noah Messing, a law professor at Yale, has described Mr. Betts as “a one-man wrecking ball for prejudice against people who often get written off.” Now Mr. Betts wants to dedicate his career to helping those who are similarly dismissed. Will the bar let him?
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