Two Organizations Work for Justice and Opportunity in America’s Criminal Justice System
Innocent Until Proven Guilty is Not Failproof
As many of you know already, I write on topics related to equity and equality in education, the workplace, and in life. It’s the “in life” that I’m writing about today. Literally, this topic is often a matter of life and death. We have a system that says a person is innocent until proven guilty. But what if the proof is faulty or our laws are inadequate to prevent injustice? Our criminal justice system is imperfect. And when things go wrong, lives hang in the balance. I’m talking about wrongful convictions. There is nothing more devastating to a person than to have their freedom taken away through no fault of their own. Yet, it happens far more often than you might think. That’s why I support The Innocence Project. Co-founders and Co-directors Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck started The Innocence Project in 1992 as a legal clinic at Cardozo Law School (Yeshiva University) in New York. They recognized that the criminal justice system needs reform and it is a civil rights issue of our day.
The Use of DNA in Overturning Wrongful Convictions
The premise upon which The Innocence Project was founded is simple but powerful. They believed that if DNA could prove someone was guilty, it could also prove innocence. For 25 years the Innocence Project lawyers and staff have been doing just that. And, not only have they helped to free nearly 350 wrongfully convicted men and women, they have worked to change over 100 laws to improve our criminal justice system so that errors don’t occur in the first place.
Stories of Wrongful Convictions
I chose to write on The Innocence Project because I want you, my Social Scholar readers, to be aware of their work and if you feel led, to support their work. It is probably not surprising that those most affected by wrongful convictions are people of color and poor. Tactics such as forced confessions and misidentifications lead to convictions of the innocent. On their website, you’ll find stories of men and women who have served 8, 10, 15, 25 years or more for crimes they did not commit. I’ve included links to just three of the stories so that you’ll see just how incredulous these travesties are for these people and their families. Please go to the site, look around. I know you’ll be amazed and dismayed by the stories you read. You’ll also be thankful there are organizations like The Innocence Project working on behalf of the wrongfully incarcerated.
These stories and many others can be found on The Innocence Project website.
Darrell Siggers served 34 years of wrongful incarceration. He was originally sentenced to life in prison for murder.
Clarens Desrouleaux’s case was dismissed, but not before he had served time and was released and deported to his native Haiti. His case is tragic because the arresting officers were indicted after it was found they were part of a group of Biscayne Park police who made wrongful arrests and framed Black people to clear cases.
Nicholas Yarris was convicted in 1982 for crimes he didn’t commit. He was sentenced to death. Yarris served 21 years before he was released. He is the 13th DNA exoneree from death row in the United States. You cannot un-execute someone.
The Innocence Network
The criminal justice system is fallible. It makes mistakes; and when those mistakes involve incarcerating innocent people, that’s a burden no one should have to bear. That’s why I support The Innocence Project. They a part of the Innocence Network, “an affiliation of 68 organizations from all over the world dedicated to providing pro bono legal and investigative services to individuals seeking to prove the innocence of crimes for which they have been convicted and working to redress the causes of wrongful convictions. Currently, the Innocence Network consists of 56 U.S. based and 12 non-U.S. based organizations.”
Defy Ventures’ Founder Saw Similarities Between Silicon Valley Entrepreneurs and Incarcerated People
Another organization I have just begun to follow that I think you’ll want to know more about is Defy Ventures. Catherine Hoke, Defy’s founder, is a venture capitalist by trade. After visiting a prison in Texas she recognized the similarities between entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and incarcerated people. She was convinced there was a way to transform the drive, resourcefulness, and hustle of those incarcerated into something positive and legitimate that would benefit them after their release from prison. This idea led Catherine to found two 501(c)(3) nonprofits: Prison Entrepreneurship Program in Texas in 2004, and later Defy Ventures in NYC in 2010.
Defy Ventures Aims to End Mass Incarceration and Recidivism
Defy’s vision is to end mass incarceration and cycles of recidivism by using entrepreneurship as a tool to transform legacies and human potential. The rate at which those who are convicted return to the prison system remains high. According to Defy’s website, over 650,000 people are released from federal and state prison every year. Over two-thirds of them will return for a felony or serious misdemeanor within three years. Defy Ventures aims to stop the flow of people in and out of the prison system, and they do it by harnessing the innate entrepreneurial talents of those with criminal histories and redirect them toward legal businesses and careers. Their recidivism rate of the people going through or having completed their Entrepreneurs-in-Training (EIT) is less than 5 percent.
Changing the Lives of the Most Stigmatized and Overlooked Populations in America
I bring both of these organizations to your attention because they are proof that activism works to change systems of oppression. The two lawyers, Neufeld and Scheck, of the Innocence Project and Catherine Hoke, the venture capitalist and founder of Defy Ventures saw problems in our criminal justice system. From overturning wrongful convictions and improving laws that lead to injustice to equipping those with criminal histories with the tools they need to make it in the outside world, these people inspire me to support their organizations and to continue working for what the Defy Ventures website rightly calls “one of the most stigmatized and overlooked populations in America.”
So What Can We Do?
- Donate to The Innocence Project and Defy Ventures. These organizations need our help to continue doing the work they do. Your time and money are valuable resources to this effort.
- Pay Attention to Legislation. In May 2018, The House of Representatives approved a bill to reform the federal prison system, the FIRST STEP Act (H.R. 5682). This legislation, sponsored by Representatives Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), improves the federal prison system through the implementation of corrections policy reforms. Components of the bill deal with creating efficiencies, controlling prison population, and investing in educational and vocational training programs for inmates to ease reentry into society and reduce recidivism. There are other laws that need our attention as well. For example, the Florida Stand Your Ground law has led to controversial deaths. Getting to know more about that legislation and working to increase accountability for the use of deadly force is a matter that deserves our attention.
- Share this article. The majority of Americans do not know much about the plight of this forgotten population. They are not aware of The Innocence Project and the network of other organizations affiliated with this work or Defy Ventures. You can make sure your circle of family and friends are aware.
Together, we can make a positive impact in the lives of the wrongfully convicted or those who are trying to get their lives back on the right track.
When we know better, we do better.
© 2018 Tonya Harris Cornileus, Ph.D.
All Rights Reserved.