October 27, 2020
In the Sunday, October 25 NY Times Magazine, Reginald Dwayne Betts wrote a compelling essay on the messiness, the conflicting feelings that he and many others have about the criminal justice system. Mr Betts was convicted at the age of 16 for carjacking and served time in Virginia prisons for nine years. After he was released his mother confided in him that she was attacked and raped while waiting for a bus. Mr. Betts had to confront his conflicted feelings: his own experience of the harshness and brutality of incarceration when just a teenager while at the same time wanting justice for his mother. Justice for his mother meant a harsh and uncompromising sentence for her attacker.
Mr Betts is a celebrated poet and author. Here is a summary of some of his accomplishments taken from his website:
Reginald Dwayne Betts transformed himself from a sixteen-year old kid sentenced to nine-years in prison to a critically acclaimed writer and graduate of the Yale Law School. He has written three acclaimed collections of poetry, the recently published Felon, Bastards of the Reagan Era and Shahid Reads His Own Palm. When awarded Betts the PEN New England Award for poetry for his collection Bastards of the Reagan Era, judge Mark Doty said:
“Betts has written an indelible lament for a generation, a necessary book for this American moment.”
His memoir, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, is the story of a young man confined in the worst prisons in the state of Virginia, where solitary confinement, horrific conditions, and the constant violence threatened to break his humanity. Instead, Betts used the time to turn himself into a poet, a scholar, and an advocate for the reform of the criminal justice system.
The significance of Mr. Betts' recent NY Times essay is his confronting wanting punishment for a person who clearly did a terrible and harmful act and at the same time wanting to reform if not radically change how we punish people who commit violent crimes. His essay reminded me of how I felt about the murder of George Floyd. I wanted Officer Derek Chauvin to be sentenced to life imprisonment. Yet as I thought about the calls for the maximum penalty for Officer Chauvin, I also remembered my belief that most people should not be in prison for the rest of their lives. I remembered that I believe that people can change, that a person who committed a crime at the age of 30 or 40 is not the same person when he or she reaches the age of 65. What would it take for us to act mercifully toward Derek Chauvin or for the rapist who attacked Mr. Betts' mother? What does it mean to act mercifully/. These are questions we need to confront and answer.