What does it take to get a second chance?
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.