Former convict Reginald Dwayne Betts, 36, recently graduated from Yale Law School. He is a well-known author and poet who passed the state bar exam in February. However, given his criminal history, he must now prove his “good moral character” with “clear and convincing evidence,” according to a panel of judges on the Connecticut Bar Examining Committee. The committee is investigating Betts’ background.
At the age of 16, Betts was involved in an armed robbery and carjacking. He was convicted of three felonies and served eight years in prison. At the time, he was an honors student but was surrounded by a neighborhood of drugs, violence and other criminal activity.
During his time in solitary confinement, someone—he never learned who—slipped the 1971 anthology The Black Poets under his cell door. Reading this inspired Betts to begin typing poems in the prison’s law library, while also teaching himself law. That’s when he knew he had a passion for both. “Poetry and law have always been intertwined in my mind,” he said, “in part because poetry gives me the language to pretend that I can answer questions, even if I can’t.”
Having been determined to get a degree prior to the offenses, as soon as Betts was released he not only got his education but began teaching at a middle school. Some of Betts’ poetry reflects what it’s like to be a teenager on the streets. He has written two poetry books, Shahid Reads His Own Palm and Bastards of the Reagan Era, as well as the title A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison. The book won a 2010 NAACP Image award. “I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of horrific experiences that have given me something to say,” he said.
Betts currently works in the state public defender’s office in New Haven, Connecticut. He is conducting research thanks to the fellowship for Yale Law graduates undertaking public interest projects, although becoming a public defender wasn’t in his original plans because he felt he would have a hard time standing next to a criminal about to get locked up. Giving his circumstances, he feels lucky. “You don’t pick your fights. As a kid, I never expected to go to prison. As a prisoner, I never expected to go to law school. As a free man, I never expected to return to prison. As a poet, I [explicit] hated lawyers and their Latin and esquires and lack of methods.”
Betts is married with two children. Attorney William Dow III is representing him in the matter. “It’s an honor representing this man,” he said. “He has a resume that is absolutely breathtaking. He personifies what people talk about when they speak of second chances.”
Judge Anne Dranginis, who sits on the review committee, explained that felons are able to practice law in most states, but it is uncommon. Kansas, Mississippi, and Texas are the exceptions. “It is not an automatic disqualifier,” Dranginis says. “There are many times where we see things that happen early in a person’s life that cease to be problems for them. What we do see is…people take responsibility for their past conduct and very often have been rehabilitated.”
The Connecticut Bar Examining Committee will hold a hearing regarding Betts’ bid for admission to the bar after they have completed their investigation.