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Criminal turned law student says prison no place for some young offenders

TAMPA — If the TV studios ever make an “Extreme Makeover: Life Edition,” they might start with Reginald “Dwayne” Betts.

At 16, his life might have spiraled downward after he was sentenced to prison for carjacking someone, ultimately spending eight years behind bars. Instead, in a remarkable turnaround, he embraced his original love of reading, got a college degree and now is in his first year of studies at Yale Law School.

Betts, 32, has become a national spokesman for a program called the Campaign for Youth Justice, which is fighting the practice of trying troubled youth in adult courts instead of in juvenile justice systems.

Betts has succeeded after incarceration, but he insists that sending kids to do hard time in grown-up prisons exposes them to violence, abuse and even encourages some to try suicide.

If you want a kid to become productive upon leaving jail, “why send him to the place where he’s most likely to be damaged?” Betts said.

Betts visited the Center for Manifestation church in East Tampa on Saturday for a forum on juvenile justice, organized by the Tampa Interfaith Coalition for Juvenile Justice, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Campaign for Youth Justice.

Speakers blasted the “prison industrial complex” that is driven by profit and leaves children with the lifelong scar of a felony conviction, making it hard to find work and an apartment.

Betts somehow made it over those hurdles, and he now lives in Connecticut with his wife and two young sons.

He was a smart kid as a teenager, a voracious reader who made the honor roll in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. He grew up with a single mother who had a good job with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and he didn’t consider his family poor.

Betts’ good grades masked troubling signs beneath the surface, he said. He never had been in trouble with the law, but began skipping school and smoking marijuana. He didn’t rob people or get violent, but he hung around kids who did.

Associating with the wrong people caught up with him when he was 16. According to a 2006 account in the Washington Post, Betts and some friends drove to a suburban Virginia shopping mall and found a man sleeping in his car. Betts pointed a gun at the man, they stole his wallet and drove off with his car. Police caught up with him shortly after when they tried to use the man’s stolen credit card to buy clothes, the article said.

Today, Betts said he wasn’t a bad kid, but got caught up in the moment. He didn’t even know the man whose gun he borrowed that day. He’s not sure who came up with the idea to car-jack someone.

“You know how groupthink works,” he said. “You start untangling threads and you don’t know whose idea it was.”

Betts was tried as an adult and spent eight years incarcerated, including long stretches in solitary confinement. His life might have gone downhill from there, but instead he embraced his love of reading and usually got through six books a month.

He also got breaks along the way that others often don’t get, including help from a bookstore owner who gave him a job and let him start a book club for young people.

“He not only gave me a chance, he gave me the keys to the store,” Betts said of the store owner.

Eventually, Betts won a scholarship to the University of Maryland, landed adjunct professor positions at various colleges and most recently started at Yale.

Today he speaks about the horrors of life as a 120-pound kid in a grown man’s prison. Beatings were commonplace, stabbings happened occasionally and he would hear of young people trying to kill themselves.

Around Florida activists are tackling what they call an overly aggressive juvenile justice system. David Utter, policy and legislative director for the SPLC in Florida, said his group is pushing an alternative to arresting youth accused of first-time misdemeanors.

Instead of arresting them, give them something called a civil citation that punishes them but doesn’t give them a criminal record, he said.

In Miami, 85 percent of kids accused of a first-time misdemeanor get a citation instead of an arrest, but in Hillsborough County, that figure is just 37 percent, Utter said, citing Florida Department of Juvenile Justice reports.

Critics say a civil citation is nothing more than a slap on the wrist, Utter acknowledges. But, he insists the alternative isn’t working.

“For years, we in Florida have been addicted to criminalizing adolescent misbehavior through arrests, putting kids in detention,” he said.

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