Formerly convicted law graduate redefines justice in the courts

Sharon Pan/Staff

Yale Law School graduate Reginald Dwayne Betts was admitted to the Connecticut bar earlier this month. Betts was required to defend himself in terms of “moral character” as a result of a prior felony conviction when he was a minor. As I am a prelaw student at UC Berkeley, Betts’ story was an inspiration for me.

While still a minor in Osaka, Japan, I was arrested as well. I had been associating with a gang in Japan known as the 暴走族, or bosozoku. While not at the harrowing level of yakuza, the bosozoku is not known for being a philanthropic organization either. To see that Betts was admitted to the Connecticut bar validates for me that Shoshana Felman’s concern over “judicial blindness” in the American legal system is more of a caution than an irrevocable proscription. Felman, currently a professor at Emory University, used the term “judicial blindness” in her work “The Juridical Unconscious” to evoke former Supreme Court justices, such as Hugo Black, who ruled against Fred Korematsu in the disastrous Korematsu v. United States case — a decision that allowed the government to arrest and intern Korematsu for hiding after refusing to go to an internment camp during World War II.

As terrible as previous Supreme Court decisions such as Korematsu v. United States or Plessy v. Ferguson may have been, Betts’ success in gaining admission into the Connecticut bar proves that redemption is still possible in the United States. In Japan, my home country, redemption sadly still is frequently beyond reach for men such as myself and Betts. Although the United States still has many problems to confront in terms of injustice and racism, I feel compelled to view the Connecticut bar as a microcosm for the very transcendent justice that the United States purports to stand for.

The main task that major metropolitan cities in the US must now address, though, is how to prevent the gangs from reaching young people such as Betts in the first place. I am often asked about my experience with the bosozoku gang, and I have occasionally received a strange degree of admiration for having a checkered past. However, and I affirm this wholeheartedly, it would have been better to never have encountered the gang in the first place. Having lived in South Central Los Angeles when I first moved to California, I received the same response from many former gang members there as well.

Felman’s works invariably discuss trauma in conjunction with criminality and catastrophes of justice. I would agree that whatever dark honor is linked to former gang association is ultimately undermined by the trauma that induced the young person to join the gang in the first place. In Korematsu v. US, Korematsu was deemed an enemy combatant despite being a hard-working American citizen. I have always felt guilty when studying Korematsu’s case because despite being a legitimate criminal, I was spared Korematsu’s pain. Because of the suffering of men like him, I now have the ability in the United States, just like Betts, to become an arbiter of the law. Without a doubt, I will inexorably avoid glorifying my bosozoku past, so as to dissuade any future individuals to stay close to the law from the start.

Since unjust judges such as Black have reached the level of the Supreme Court, this is somewhat of an ambiguous admonition. More accurately, it is the task of redeemed men such as Betts to not only fight the roots of criminality in the streets, but also fight ingrained criminality in the courts as well. Having given Betts the ability to pursue this lofty task, the state of Connecticut should be viewed as a case of hope for a socially divided United States, whose modern wars are now fought on the home front. Regardless of the precedent set by Black in the Korematsu decision, the combatants are never men like Betts, but rather the amorphous, ubiquitous social ills that drive them toward crime in the first place.

Hideyasu Kurose is a prelaw student at UC Berkeley.