Born in Maryland, Betts was in gifted programs throughout his youth, and in high school was an honors student and class treasurer at Suitland High School in the Washington, D.C. suburb of District Heights, Maryland.
At the age of sixteen, he and a friend carjacked a man who had fallen asleep in his car at the Springfield Mall. Betts was charged as an adult and spent more than eight years in prison (including fourteen months in solitary confinement), where he completed high school and began reading and writing poetry.
Speaking at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest in 2016, he said: "I was in solitary confinement.... You could call out for a book and someone would slide one to you. Frequently, you would not know who gave it to you. Somebody slid The Black Poets edited by Dudley Randall. In that book I read Robert Hayden for the first time, Sonia Sanchez, Lucille Clifton. I saw the poet as not just utilitarian but as serving art. In a poem you can give somebody a whole world. Before that, I had thought of being a writer, writing mostly essays and maybe, one day, a novel. But at that moment I decided to become a poet."
In prison, he was renamed Shahid, meaning "witness".
After serving an eight year prison term, Betts found a job working at Karibu Books in Bowie, Maryland. At the store, he was eventually promoted to store manager and founded a book club for African American boys, while attending Prince George's Community College in Largo, Maryland. He later became a teacher of poetry in Washington, DC, and in 2013, he was teaching an intro to non-fiction course at Emerson College.
Betts is also the national spokesman for the Campaign for Youth Justice, and speaks out for juvenile-justice reform. He also visits detention centers and inner-city schools, and talks to at-risk young people.
In 2012, President Barack Obama announced that Betts had been named a member of the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
In 2016, Betts graduated from Yale Law School and passed the Connecticut bar exam. However, in 2017, the bar rejected his initial application for membership. He is currently working on his PhD in law at Yale.
Betts' honors include a Bread Loaf Writers' Conference scholarship, the Holden Fellowship to attend the M.F.A. program at Warren Wilson College and a Fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. He is a Cave Canem Workshop fellow, and was a full scholarship student at the University of Maryland, where he earned his B.A.
He was a 2010 Soros Justice Fellow.
In 2009, Shahid Reads His Own Palm won the Beatrice Hawley Award for poetry.
In 2010, A Question of Freedom won an NAACP Image Award for non-fiction.
In 2017, his Only Once I Thought About Suicide received the Israel H. Perez Prize for best student comment appearing in the Yale Law Journal.
His poems have been published in literary journals and magazines including Ploughshares, Crab Orchard Review, and Poet Lore.