A bank robber turned jailhouse lawyer and Georgetown professor returned to his home state to make a pitch for why Nebraska should consider allowing people with past criminal records to practice law here.

"People change and the law needs to recognize that," Shon Hopwood told a crowd of about 1,000 people, mostly lawyers, at the Nebraska Bar Association's annual meeting in La Vista on Oct. 18.

Hopwood, who grew up in David City, said Nebraskans are generous, warm people, which is why he feels like they should understand the idea of giving people second chances when they come through the criminal justice system.

"It seemed to fit the ethos," he said.

Yet when Hopwood finished a 12-year federal prison sentence for robbing banks here and decided to try law school, he chose the University of Washington over Creighton University because he thought he had a better chance at getting a law license there after school.

"But I'm hoping you all will change that," he told the Nebraska lawyers.

The Nebraska State Bar Commission, which includes members appointed to represent each of the state's six judicial districts, reviews all applicants and makes recommendations to the Nebraska Supreme Court about whether an applicant is qualified and competent to be permitted to practice law in the state.

Convictions like Hopwood's likely would've kept him from being admitted here.

Now Hopwood teaches at Georgetown Law and said he hopes all state bar associations start thinking about the issue and looking at people holistically in evaluating if they have the character and fitness needed to practice law.

"Because you will be confronted with it sooner rather than later," he said, given the country's incarceration rate.

Senior U.S. District Judge Richard G. Kopf, the judge who sent him to prison and joined him on stage at the talk, asked Hopwood about his meeting with "Darth Cheeto, the President."

Hopwood said after his story was on 60 Minutes, he got a call from the White House. And for the past year he's been working with them on criminal justice reform. When they ask, he gives them his views on policy change, he said.

He expects Congress to take up and pass a federal prison reform bill, called the First Step Act, after November that would add rehabilitation classes.

"It makes so much sense that if we're going to send people to prison we at least want to make sure that when they come out they're rehabilitated because it's a public safety issue," Hopwood said.

Not to mention the costs of incarceration.

"So it's all in our interest to rehabilitate people," he said.

Hopwood said the bill would end the shackling of women inmates in child birth, get rid of some of the mandatory minimums that tie judges' hands and allow inmates to serve part of their sentences in home confinement if they're doing well.

He said he's a big believer in people in prison earning their way to freedom through incentives. Right now, Hopwood said, there were no incentives, only negative reinforcements.

In a Q&A session, Omaha attorney John Kellogg Jr. asked Hopwood if he thought it was fair for politicians and others to be grilled on things that happened many years ago. He said he didn't want to make it political, but it was a clear reference to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's nomination hearings last month.

"As a good lawyer likes to say, 'no comment,'" Hopwood said to laughs and applause.

But then he elaborated. He said he didn't want to get into the "Judge Kavanaugh thing," but then raised a hypothetical.

What if, hypothetically, he'd said he did do what a woman alleged Kavanaugh did to her in high school?

"Does 40 or 50 years of doing everything right after that matter? And do people get a second chance?" Hopwood asked.

That, he said, would've been an interesting discussion.

Another man in the crowd, who didn't give his name, asked Hopwood about his Naval service and whether he thinks it contributed to him ending up robbing banks when he came back.

Hopwood said there were a lot of factors that went into what he did.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about those crimes and wish I could go back and change it," he said.

Yes, he had abused drugs and was drinking. He was in depression and had no purpose in life.

"But so much of my problems were I was a young, foolish, reckless young man around a bunch of other young, foolish reckless young men," Hopwood said.

Eventually, he said, he grew out of that, found a passion for the law and started to have responsibility and it changed him. And he credited all the people who helped him and gave him chances for helping him get where he is now.

There are people who need to go to prison for their crimes, he said. "But nobody's a lost cause. I truly believe that," Hopwood said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or lpilger@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSpilger.



Lori Pilger is a public safety reporter.

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