From Prison to Poetry: Former Criminal Advocates for Juvenile Justice Reform

Feb 8, 2010 6:40pm

ABC News on Campus reporter Brian McBride blogs: Former prisoner Reginald Dwayne Betts (at left), now a poet and an author, spoke about juvenile justice reform and rehabilitation to a crowd of about 150 Arizona State University students last week.
 
Betts, now 29, was 16 years old when he took part in a carjacking — a decision that would cost him nine years of his life when he was tried as an adult. While in jail, he devoted himself to reading and writing poems. 
 
Today he's a program director for the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop, and an author of the memoir “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison” — Betts has come a long way from his days behind bars.
 
“Books got me through prison because books helped me to educate myself and understand not only why I was in prison, but why I wouldn’t return to prison,” Betts said.
 
Lisa Glenn, 41, works as an executive assistant at the ASU foundation and said she came to the event with her 20 nieces and nephews in mind.
 
“I wanted to give them a signed book,” Glenn said. “To give them inspiration because most definitely if you don’t have the right influence you kind of fall through the cracks.”
 
As the national spokesman for the Campaign for Youth Justice, an organization dedicated to ending the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating youth under the age of 18 in the adult criminal justice system, Betts touched on several relevant areas: the need to eliminate or review statutory programs for mandatory imprisonment for juveniles transferred to adult court, and the need to improve transitions for juveniles under the age of 18 when leaving jails and prisons. “We have a great need to reform the juvenile justice system, from sentencing to punishment to the actual prisons we’re placing juveniles in,” said Jane Christie, 23, a law student at ASU. “There’s clearly something wrong, the system isn’t working.”
 
Christie said Betts’ story added another perspective to the long-debated issue of justice reform.
 
“He’s giving a personal touch to the need that we really need to reform the system,” Christie said.
 
Betts said the best way to achieve juvenile justice reform is by sitting down and talking about the real issues at hand.   “Books are really important, but more important than the actual books are the conversations that we could have from reading those books and from coming together and discussing the issues that are raised in those books,” Betts said. “And truthfully if we had those conversations than we can begin to change society.”

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