Haunted by his crime, Maryland educator makes most of second chances

Saturday, November 6, 2010; 3:32 PM

R. Dwayne Betts says 30 minutes of insanity could have ruined his life.

At 16, he and a friend carjacked a man at a Virginia mall. It was his first criminal offense. He was a smart kid on his way to college. Instead he got sent to prison for eight years and three months. Betts was able to shave some time off his nine-year sentence because of good behavior.

"I'm haunted by my sentencing date, my mother unable to speak in my defense, people saying I committed the crime because of my father not being there, my aunt screaming," said the 30-year-old Maryland resident. "And I'm haunted by my crime."

Betts said he was determined not to let that half hour forever define him.

"I guess I came home and wanted to be something worth remembering, and to not be remembered for my crime," he said.

The odds were that Betts would face many challenges finding employment. He lost some job opportunities because of his felony conviction, but he pressed on, earning associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees.

But there were employers who did take a chance on Betts.

He is an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland and a poet-in-residence for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade at Capitol Hill Day School in the District.

Last year Penguin published Betts's "A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, And Coming of Age In Prison." In his memoirs, Betts makes no excuses for his crime. He owns up to it, blaming no one but himself.

Betts serves as an example that ex-offenders, when given the chance, can change and become hard-working, great employees.

"Almost every one of my moments outside of prison has been filled with me fighting to be defined by something other than prison," Betts writes in his book.

Betts said he wrote about his experience hoping that people who've made mistakes can be given a chance to redeem themselves.

"People change," Betts says. "Sometimes people want to change and they fail. But the idea that a second chance shouldn't be an option is just unbelievably vengeful to me. I can't escape my moment of insanity. It'll be with me forever, but maybe I believe in second chances because I know that's why I am who I am."

- Michelle Singletary

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