What does it take to get a sec­ond chance?

Daily Southtown (Sunday) - - Opinion - By Steven Lu­bet Steven Lu­bet is a law pro­fes­sor and direc­tor of the Bartlit Cen­ter for Tri­alAd­vo­cacy at North­west­ern Univer­sity Pritzker School of Law.

Regi­naldDwayne Bettswas still in high school when hewas con­victed of the crime — car­jack­ing and armed rob­bery— that would haunt him the rest of his life. Af­ter serv­ing eight years in a Vir­ginia state prison, Betts even­tu­ally be­came a widely pub­lished poet and grad­u­ated from Yale Law School. In a re­cent es­say in TheNewYork TimesMagazine, he ex­plains the dev­as­tat­ing af­ter­ef­fects of a felony con­vic­tion, and the dif­fi­cul­ties it cre­ated for him when he ap­plied for ad­mis­sion to the Con­necti­cut bar.

Al­though there is no com­par­i­son be­tween what Betts en­dured andmy own life, his es­say has­movedme to tellmy story of crim­i­nal con­vic­tions and ul­ti­mate ad­mis­sion to the Illi­nois bar. I had an easy time of it com­pared with Betts, who wrote, “I might even­tu­ally be al­lowed to prac­tice law, or, I re­al­ized with a cold, dull clar­ity, I might not.” In con­trast, I blithely as­sumed that ev­ery­thing would work­out, as in­deed ev­ery­thing did.

Iwas con­victed four times of mis­de­meanors, once each year from1967 to 1970, be­tween the ages of 18 and 21, all in­volv­ing peace or civil rights demon­stra­tions. I pleaded guilty three times, andmy one con­vic­tion at tri­al­was re­versed on ap­peal. The stiffest sen­tence came in the last and most se­ri­ous case, dur­ingmy se­nior year in college. Al­though I should have gone to jail as a re­peat of­fender, a sur­pris­ingly le­nient plea bar­gain got me off with two years of pro­ba­tion.

Of course, I dis­closedmy crim­i­nal his­tory onmy lawschool ap­pli­ca­tions, which I must have been fill­ing out con­cur­rently with the court pro­ceed­ings. Only theUniver­sity of Michi­gan seemed to care, re­quir­ing me to travel fromChicago to Ann Ar­bor for an in­ter­view with a dean. “Mr. Lu­bet,” he in­formed me, “not only have you been ar­rested more times than any other ap­pli­cant to the lawschool, you have been ar­rested more times than every other ap­pli­cant to the law school.” I was fool­ishly de­fi­ant, hav­ing al­ready been ac­cepted at other schools, so I just shrugged off the dean’s con­cerns. It did not seem to mat­ter; Michi­gan soon ac­cept­edme with a full schol­ar­ship, which I turned down to at­tend theUniver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley (also with a schol­ar­ship, and no spe­cial in­ter­view).

My pro­ba­tion, how­ever, still had a year and a half to run, so I had to get court per- mis­sion to at­tend lawschool out of state. The judge chided me for “join­ing the es­tab­lish­ment,” which I had no in­ten­tion of do­ing. But I smiled po­litely, and she signed the order al­low­ingmy move to Cal­i­for­nia. The judge did not re­mem­berme years later when I ap­peared be­fore her as a lawyer, but she smiled when I ex­plained and thanked her.

Lawschool­was un­event­ful, at least as far as get­ting ar­rested. Af­ter grad­u­a­tion I re­turned to Chicago towork at the Le­gal As­sis­tance Foun­da­tion, but there still­was the small mat­ter of get­ting ad­mit­ted to the bar. Ap­proval­was a for­mal­ity for most of those who passed the exam, but not for me. Like Betts in Con­necti­cut, I re­ceived a no­tice from the Char­ac­ter and Fit­ness Com­mit­tee, in­form­ing me thatmy ap­pli­ca­tion needed ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion. Iwas sched­uled for a spe­cial in­ter­viewwith a com­mit­tee mem­ber. Only then did I con­sult a lawyer at the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­tiesUnion, which had rep­re­sented me in the ap­peal ofmy over­turned con­vic­tion. He ad­vised me to tell the full truth, which I would have done any­how, and to be con­trite, which­was not inmy na­ture, though I re­solved to domy best.

Ar­riv­ing at the in­ter­viewer’s la­wof­fice, I was pleased to see that hewas African- Amer­i­can. Therewere rel­a­tively few black lawyers in Chicago in 1973, and, I amem­bar­rassed to say, I thought­lessly as­sumed that hewould be more sym­pa­thetic to crimes of civil dis­obe­di­ence. As it hap­pened, the lawyer who’d ne­go­ti­at­edmy mirac­u­lous plea bar­gain also had been African-Amer­i­can, so I dropped his name in the shame­less hope that they knew each other.

“Oh yes, I knowhim,” said the in­ter­viewer. “In fact, I sawhim just last­week ... when I vis­ited him in the Cook County Jail.” Un­be­knownst tome, my de­fense coun­sel had him­self been con­victed of re­ceiv­ing stolen se­cu­ri­ties and­was serv­ing a three-year sen­tence.

The in­ter­viewer did not holdmy lawyer’s crimes again­stme, and I ev­i­dently came close enough to con­tri­tion to meet his ap­proval. “Young man,” he said, “I am go­ing to take the bull by the horns and rec­om­mend you to the bar.” Iwas sworn in a fewweeks later, and I have sel­dom thought about it since.

Look­ing back, there­was a good amount of priv­i­lege and naivete inmy ap­proach to the whole si­t­u­a­tion. Hav­ing read Betts’ es­say, I amashamed to say that it hardly oc­curred to me that Iwould not be ad­mit­ted to the bar. Through the en­tire process of ap­pli­ca­tions, lawschool at­ten­dance, ap­ply­ing for the LAF job and tak­ing the bar exam, I sim­ply as­sumed that it­would be just fine. Betts un­der­stood that his felony con­vic­tion, at age 16, “would for­ever be a hell­hound onmy trail,” but I had no such fears.

True, four mis­de­meanors are far fro­man armed felony, much less eight years in prison, but therewere other rea­sons formy non­cha­lance. Not least, I had been con­victed as a white stu­dent at a pri­vate univer­sity, where Betts had been a black teenager in a Vir­ginia prison. I had plenty of rea­sons for op­ti­mism and he had few or none. More­over, I had al­ways been sur­rounded by a com­mu­nity— friends, class­mates, fel­lowac­tivists— who re­gard­edmy con­vic­tions fa­vor­ably. If not ex­actly badges of honor, they­were cer­tainly cool.

In fact, my ar­rests had been fool­hardy at best. Af­ter all, Iwas safely demon­strat­ing in down­town Evanston, not marching on Alabama’s Ed­mund Pet­tus Bridge. Our anti-war demon­stra­tions would have pro­ceeded just as suc­cess­fully with­out taunt­ing the po­lice( which is what we had done). It seemed ide­al­is­tic at the time, but it­was re­ally just reck­less­ness.

Betts’ es­say makes me sorry to have worn those events so lightly. Al­though I did not grasp it then, Iwas ex­traor­di­nar­ily for­tu­nate to be able to at­tend lawschool and join the bar. The judge, an un­named Berke­ley ad­mis­sions of­fi­cer and the char­ac­ter and fit­ness in­ter­viewer all took a chance onme. Any one of them could have squelchedmy plans with­out ex­pla­na­tion, and who knows where Iwould be to­day? I did not ap­pre­ci­ate their in­dul­gence, which was ob­scured bymy own sense of en­ti­tle­ment.

It­was not wrong to gain for­give­ness for my youth­ful mis­takes, but it is deeply wrong for our in­sti­tu­tions— em­ploy­ers, uni­ver­si­ties, gov­ern­ments— to with­hold mean­ing­ful for­give­ness fromthose who may need it the most. Betts de­scribes how jobs, ed­u­ca­tion, pub­lic hous­ing and even vot­ing rights are of­ten de­nied to peo­ple with prison records. He “dis­cov­ered how hard it is for a felon to get a sec­ond chance.” I got a sec­ond chance with­out much notic­ing it. The same op­por­tu­nity should be avail­able to ev­ery­one.


Peo­ple with prison records of­ten face tremen­dous dif­fi­cul­ties ac­quir­ing jobs and ed­u­ca­tion af­ter they’ve served their time. Sec­ond chances should not be so hard to come by.

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