Ex-Inmate, Activist, and Author Thrives as Yale Law Student

Former inmate was a writer and activist before coming to Yale
Photo by Tony RinaldoPhoto by Tony Rinaldo
The Connecticut Law Tribune
February 26, 2016
By Megan Spicer

Reginald Dwayne Betts did not want to study law. He had no dreams of going to law school. In fact, he didn't really like lawyers.

That would come as no surprise, given his early experience in the courts: At age 16, he was sentenced to nine years in prison for taking part in an armed carjacking at a Virginia mall. "I'm under no illusion that sending you to prison will help you, but you can get something out of it if you want to," the judge told Betts at the sentencing hearing.

In fact, Betts did get something out of it. He's now a published poet and author. He's been interviewed by the New Yorker and National Public Radio. He's a national advocate for a youth justice group, and has been a speaker at a number of legal conferences.

And later this spring, he will receive a Yale Law School J.D. Yes, he's been turned down for apartments and jobs because of what he calls his "baggage and bunch of felonies." He's not eligible to vote in many states. But he got into one of the top law schools in the country. Actually, he got into two of the top law schools in the country: He was admitted to Harvard as well.

As the 36-year-old African-American father of two talks about the early part of his life, there are moments that would seem like turning points, moments that pointed him toward the legal profession. After all, he worked in the Virginia prison's law library. But as he speaks, Betts pauses and clearly reminds an interviewer: "I still had no intention of being a lawyer."

It's not that he wasn't smart. The New Yorker interviewer described him as a "bright, bookish kid."

"Maybe I thought it wasn't possible or I just didn't like lawyers that much," Betts told the Law Tribune. What changed his mind? At some point, he remembered something that appealed to him, something a friend once told him about law: "Law is the language of power."

Even if his career path was unclear, his legal advocacy efforts started early.

Before he pleaded guilty to the carjacking, he had been in a juvenile facility. Before his sentencing, he was transferred to the adult courts. He thought it was unfair that the judge didn't count the three months he served in juvenile facilities toward his adult prison sentence. So while in prison, he wrote letters and placed calls to corrections officials. Most went unanswered. He was eventually told that his adult sentence was not going to be reduced.

So, using resources in the prison law library, he filed a habeas corpus writ requesting a hearing on his sentence. He was successful. A friend saw what Betts had been able to accomplish and asked for help with a similar challenge to his own sentence. Again, Betts was successful.

"All of this happened," he said, "and I still had no intention of being a lawyer."

One day, he got into a heated discussion in his cell about tort law. In the end, Betts was trumped when his verbal sparring partner flourished a tort law text he had read. "That kind of bothered me," Betts said.

So he signed up for a paralegal course offered by the prison. "I didn't want to be in a situation where I didn't know again," he said.

After being released in 2005, Betts met Liz Ryan, the founder of the Campaign for Youth Justice, which seeks to end the incarceration of juvenile offenders. He was invited to be a keynote speaker at conferences and to speak about his experiences, which would be the beginning of his advocacy work. He currently acts as the organization's national spokesman. He visits juvenile detention centers and inner-city schools, speaking to at-risk youth about how reading and writing and poetry changed his life and how it can also change theirs.

Later, in 2012, he was appointed by President Barack Obama to the Coordination Council on Juvenile and Delinquency Prevention. The council meets several times a year to discuss juvenile delinquency prevention programs and to make recommendations to Congress.

He found equal success as a writer. He's published four books: his memoirs and three collections of poems.

Among those who have read his work is Forrester Lee, the associate dean of the office of multicultural affairs at Yale University. He describes Betts as "one of the most remarkable people who has come out of a horrible situation." Reading his books or hearing his public talks, Lee said, it's not hard to see how Betts was shaped by his years in prison. "It was just a moment in his life that he worked through with some tremendous strength of power and endurance, relying on his capacities and strength that he didn't know he had," Lee said.

After getting out of prison, Betts earned his bachelor's and master's degrees. He got married and had two children. He was living in the Boston area, and had a fellowship with Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, which focuses on the arts.

One afternoon, Betts and a friend were passing time in the Harvard Law School cafeteria. A woman acquaintance approached his friend and they launched into a conversation. In a passing comment, she said she had the chance to either get a doctorate or go to law school and chose the latter.

That was all it took. From that moment on, Betts set his sights on law school. "Even though it was almost a whimsical decision, it was one that fit in the trajectory of my life," Betts said.

After gaining acceptance to both Harvard and Yale, he decided to come to New Haven, and has no regrets. He said he's never felt as though his classmates questioned why or how he was studying alongside them. He speaks of close relationships with his professors.

During his three years, he's been involved in two legal clinics. In his first year, he represented New Haven students facing expulsion. For the past two years, Betts has been involved in the criminal justice clinic, where he has represented people who have violated parole. "That was a great opportunity also to just see on the ground level how our system works and what kind of work a public defender does and how you actually are one of the last lines of defense for justice and you actually are one of the engines that helps the system work in a just way," Betts said.

Betts arrived in New Haven with the idea of becoming a public defender, and he still thinks that's a possibility. But his first job will be as a law clerk in the Philadelphia federal courts. He also plans to continue his advocacy work. In April, he will be the keynote speaker at a Northwestern School of Law conference focusing on de-incarceration.

Will his time in prison make him a better lawyer? By claiming such an advantage, Betts worries that he's downplaying the other experiences and skills his Yale classmates bring to the table. So he offers this lawyer-like answer: "Sometimes it will make me better, sometimes it won't." 

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