I listened to a public radio discussion on Reginald Dwayne Betts and his efforts to practice law. Save your lawyer jokes for another day, friends, this is serious. As I write this, the Connecticut Bar is deciding the fate of his application, and attempting to determine if he is of sufficiently “good moral character” to become a member of that state’s bar. This is an important, life-altering event for Mr. Betts that should be felt and followed by ALL Americans. His story is the most moving and significant tale of renewal, accountability, and perseverance that I’ve probably ever heard.
As a young, sixteen-year-old man, Mr. Betts participated in an armed robbery and car-jacking that he’s only been able to explain as the sequential culmination of singular events and poor choices. “Reasons sound like excuses,” he said last year, “and there was no good reason.” Cops arrested him the following day after he’d used the victim’s credit cards and he ultimately served eight years. He left prison as a young twenty-something felon, an ex-con. I can tell you from personal experience that the opportunities available to convicts are nearly zero. Few employers or landlords will have them, and most have little chance for a “normal” life. This lack of opportunity often presents them with a harsh choice: return to a life of crime, or live hand-to-mouth and destitute. Even after serving out their sentences and “paying their debt to society,” ex-cons usually continue to suffer long after their release from prison. I normally don’t have a tremendous amount of heartburn over that, because I’ve met few (read here, zero) that go on to become model neighbors, citizens, and community members.
I should point out that I’m an optimist, even if a jaded and cynical one. I want to believe that people can change, even though I generally don’t see it. Our nation’s history is partly a constant redefining of “us versus them,” with those groups altering over time. Minority groups of all types have always had each other to lean on for support, comfort, and compassion, but felons often only really have each other. The potential for an eventual return to prison becomes predictable for many of them.
However, upon his release from prison, Dwayne Betts didn’t succumb to the statistics of his label or reduce himself to the inevitable recidivism that our society expects and virtually demands from felons. He graduated college with a 4.0 GPA, and earned an MFA. He wrote poetry, and won an NAACP award for it. He was accepted to Yale Law School, where he graduated and entered Yale Law’s PhD program. Mr. Betts has numerous accolades for his service to his community, and has done more to help those around him than a lot of people I know.
To me, the question is not whether he possesses the “good moral character” to justly and equitably practice law and represent clients. I think the question is whether the Connecticut Bar can ever see past what a sixteen-year-old kid did twenty years ago while falling victim to opportunity and group-think. What was the worst thing you did at sixteen? What if you’d been caught doing it, or someone had been hurt in the process? Would it be just to define you today by that childish failing so long ago?
I listened to an interview with one of Mr. Betts’ Yale Law professors, who offered his belief that his student had well surpassed the bar requirements, and now feared that everyone else would be held to Mr. Betts’ high moral standards. I believe firmly and resolutely in second chances, and our need for them as flawed and fallible humans. Had his crimes occurred five or ten years ago, I would understand caution. Had they occurred as an adult, I would understand caution. Had he refused responsibility or culpability for them, I would understand caution. For me, this Bar’s decision will reflect the true status of our society, and our belief in reformation and faith in our fellow man.
I pray that the Connecticut Bar will see past their probable precedence-setting decision to award a place for this convicted felon. I hope to soon hear good news out of our Connecticut, that we haven’t given up on each other. I hope to see our rhetoric that rebirth, renewal, and change are possible within the human experience, and that compassion and forgiveness are, as well.
Whatever the outcome, I’m certain Mr. Betts will continue to serve his community and, thereby, our Nation. I’m an optimist, even if a jaded and cynical one. Like my cynical Irish ancestors before me, I’m drinking Jameson either way. God Bless you, Dwayne Betts. May the road rise to meet you.