Late Friday afternoon, in a small, sleepy, windowless fourth-floor
courtroom at the New Haven State Superior Court, an official cried,
“Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!,” as Judge Omar Williams arrived from Hartford to
conduct the final business of the week. Williams looked out upon two
rows of pew-like wooden benches, all of them filled, and informed the
public that the court had received word from the state that Reginald
Dwayne Betts, age thirty-seven, had been “successfully” approved to
practice law in Connecticut. Williams then described the “honor” he felt
at “being here today.” Referring to law as “a calling,” the judge said
that Betts was “an inspiration.” Betts had trimmed his beard and wore a
crisp blue suit over his stocky frame for an event that had the feel of
a wedding. He was required to raise his right hand and swear that he’d
do nothing dishonest, for personal gain or out of malice. “I do,” Betts
said. And with that, the judge asked the gallery to “help me
congratulate Attorney Reginald Dwayne Betts!”

Connecticut’s newest lawyer held his license and began to read from it
aloud. Then he stopped, looked at his mother, who had come from
Maryland, and thanked her, saying, “Last time my mom saw me in court, I
was sentenced to nine years in prison. I know nobody expected this then.
Least of all me.” He proceeded to identify every witness in the room:
his law professors from Yale, his aunt Pandora, his wife and sons. A
number of friends were present, including me. (We met a few years ago,
through mutual friends in New Haven, and grew close.) “There’s even a
prosecutor in the house!” Betts said. As he told us all how he’d
“sweated over the possibility that this might not happen,” his ease and
command speaking at the front of such a space was evident.

At sixteen, Betts had been small for his age, an honor student from an
impoverished section of Suitland, Maryland. He’d never been in any
trouble with the police when he and several others he scarcely knew went
to a Virginia shopping mall and used a gun to force a man who’d been
sleeping in his green Pontiac to turn over the vehicle and his wallet.
Betts considers carjacking “the stupidest crime you can commit,” and,
through the subsequent years he spent in maximum-security adult prisons,
including many months in solitary confinement, he read poetry, history,
political science, and fiction, and began to write verse. But he never
developed an explanation for why he’d done something so apparently out
of character. All he ever arrived at was strong regret, and the
coefficient desire to help young people, like those he sometimes shared
cells with, to do better in life.

After his release from prison, Betts worked in a paint store, attended
Prince George’s Community College and then received his bachelor’s
degree from the University of Maryland, earned a Master of Fine Arts
from Warren Wilson College, and eventually became the rare convicted
felon to gain admission to and graduate from Yale Law School. He carried
the flag for his class at his commencement, as he did at college. He has
published two prize-winning collections of poetry and a memoir, and has
worked with young defendants for the New Haven public defender’s office
while pursuing a doctorate in law at Yale. Several times a month, he
speaks to inmates in prisons all over the country, including the
facilities where he did his time. Many of the communications he receives
from inmates who have read his work or heard him speak describe how
meaningful and motivating it is to see someone who was once in their
predicament go forward in such a way.

Betts passed the Connecticut bar exam in February. In early August, he
was alerted by his anonymous examiners that his application to practice could not be accepted because of
concerns about his moral character and fitness to serve. Further review
was pending. His reaction at the time was frustration. “There’s no
law-school course for studying character,” he told me. The question of
whether Betts should be permitted to practice law cut to the center of
national conversations about mass incarceration and the meaning of
rehabilitation. If this sixteen-year-old could not mature in character,
who could? If the criminal-justice system could not benefit from the
transformative experience of a young black man who’d seen it from both
sides, how interested were we, as a nation, in the redemption and
successful progress of the six hundred and fifty thousand former prison
inmates who reënter the general population every year? Upon release,
most return to poor and disenfranchised communities. Approximately
two-thirds are arrested again within three years. At the end of
September, Betts received word of his acceptance to the bar.

Some of Betts’s family and friends gathered after the ceremony. Betts’s
wife, Terese, described their second date, when he confessed to her that
he’d been in prison for eight years and three months. “He was so nervous
about telling me, and I didn’t understand why he thought it was such a
negative thing when he’s such a positive person,” she said. Betts’s aunt
Pandora agreed that her nephew had found a way to let his worst moments
inform his contribution to the public good. She also said that, even as
an infant, Betts had shown promise as an advocate: “Before he knew how
to talk, he would argue with you by babbling, and he’d win the
argument.” The poet Elizabeth Alexander then raised a glass and spoke of
the way in which everyone is evolving and changing all the time, and
how, in prison, through his deep feeling for language, Betts had found
beauty enough to identify “the words that saved him.”