Poetry News

Current Affairs Considers Reginald Dwayne Betts's 'character and fitness'

By Harriet Staff
Reginald Dwayne Betts

You might be as astonished as we are to learn that poet Reginald Dwayne Betts is having difficulty getting his law career off the ground, due to an obstacle thrown by the otherwise progressive state of Connecticut. According to an article published last week at Current Affairs, Betts, a former prisoner released in 2005 who has since "published two acclaimed books of poetry and a memoir, earned a college degree with a 4.0, earned an MFA, started a family, held a Radcliffe Fellowship at Harvard, earned a law degree from Yale, received an NAACP Image Award" and most importantly, has already passed the Connecticut Bar Exam, "was told by the State of Connecticut that he may not have the requisite 'character and fitness' to practice law." Let's pick up with the story from there: 

Having passed the bar​ exam​, Betts received a letter indicating that the state’s Bar Examining Committee “has not recommended you for admission to the bar at this time.” The Committee referred Betts to Article VI of its regulations, which provide that “for the protection of the public and the system of justice… a record manifesting a significant deficiency in the honesty, trustworthiness, diligence or reliability of an applicant may constitute a basis for denial of admission.” Betts’ felony conviction, from when he was 16 years old nearly 20 years ago, continued to haunt him. The endless list of accomplishments had not been enough. Nothing, apparently, could ever be.

A criminal record follows you around for life. In Devah Pager’s formulation, it creates a permanent “mark” upon a person, a stain impossible to get rid of. Once you are marked, you stay marked, and your record will always define you in the eyes of employers, institutions, and society at large. The obstacles to achieving even an ordinary life will be many: finding a job, finding housing, and getting social services will be multiple times more difficult. And as Pager’s work documents, that difficulty is multiplied even further if you are black. It has always been true in the United States that being black means you need to be “twice as good” in order to achieve the same level of recognition. But as Betts’ case shows, if you have a criminal record, you can even be nine times as good and it might not matter.

Read on at Current Affairs.

Originally Published: August 8th, 2017