Gavel and Figure of Justice

Source: Guy Cali / Getty

Spending nine years in prison, starting at age 16, will undoubtedly have an everlasting impact on one’s life. But in the case of Reginald Dwayne Betts, these years are precisely what made him the phenomenal man he is today.

According to the New York Times, Betts was sentenced to nine years in prison for carjacking. He spent a year in solitary confinement where he came across the book “The Black Poets,” which left an imprint on his life since. After he was released in 2005, he went on to write two poetry books of his own and a memoir. In addition to his publications, he went on to receive a B.A. and an M.F.A., and was appointed as a Radcliffe fellow at Harvard. He graduated from Yale Law School last May. And he’s currently working as a public defender “to do something to halt the herding of young Black people behind bars.”

Yet, the Connecticut Bar still will not allow him to continue this work as a lawyer.

Betts received a letter from the Bar saying a committee of judges and lawyers is reviewing whether Mr. Betts is of “good moral character” — something that anyone who has read up on his work and ambitions for the community would know without a doubt.

“We can signal to the world that we want to be leaders in extending second chances and mercy,” said James Forman Jr., a former teacher of Betts’ at Yale. “Or we can signal to the world that we are caught up in the mind-set of 20 or 30 years ago.”

For as long as we can remember, our criminal justice system has been broken beyond repair. Betts would be a gift to the United States legal system. To deliberately keep an over-qualified and motivational professional who has the potential to radicalize the way we look at the legal system out is a disservice to the citizens of this country.

Or is that precisely why they’re keeping him out? It’s much easier to oppress others without any knowledge of their experience. Betts would bring this nuance to his field and could challenge the average judge, lawyer, and jury alike to remove stigma as well as decontextualize laws.

Betts has the potential to change the world as we know it,  but it’s up to Connecticut bar to consider if they’re ready for that shift.