Posts tagged ‘criminal justice’

STUDENTS PROVE INMATES’ INNOCENCE

This article originally appeared at The Temple News on Oct. 20, 2009.

Through the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, students help prove Pennsylvania inmates not guilty.

Students receive letters from inmates who feel their cases should be investigated as part of the Innocence Project. Since April, Temple has received more than 1,000 letters.

Theresa Giamanco looked at the looping script scrawled on several sheets of yellow notepad paper – so many sheets that it must have taken the author hours to write by hand.

“You can tell people put a lot of time in hoping to get our attention,” Giamanco, a third-year law student, said. As part of a clinical studies requirement at Temple’s Beasley School of Law, she works at the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, housed by Temple in an office of the University Services Building.

The project may be modest in size, staff and budget, though its mission is anything but. It works to free innocent people wrongfully convicted of crimes, currently serving lengthy sentences in Pennsylvania prisons. The project relies on students to provide most of the manpower.

“It’s surprising how much the inmates know about the law,” third-year Temple law student Mary Hoang said. “Some of the stuff they point out, like certain procedures and case law, are things that I don’t even remember. They know it all so much better than us because it’s their life.”

Inmates must seek out the Innocence Project for help by sending a letter stating how they are innocent. Students read each letter, deciding which qualify for the next step. On any given day, a 6-inch stack of letters can sit on a shelf, waiting to be read.

“[Since April], we heard from over 1,000 inmates, and 500 cases are under further consideration,” Legal Director and Innocence Project Adviser Marissa Boyers Bluestine said.

The project only works with inmates who are factually innocent. Third-year law student Stephen Rudman said he likes working on the first stage the most.

“That’s what this is all about,” Rudman said. “It’s you and a letter … is it possible he didn’t do it?”
Cases also have to be in Pennsylvania and past the appeals process. Inmates must be serving lengthy sentences for robbery, rape or homicides.

If the case meets those requirements, it moves to the second and third stages, which require more investigative work. Inmates send all the information pertaining to the case and fill out questionnaires.
“I’m always shocked at the trial transcripts,” third-year Villanova law student Maureen Belluscio said, pointing to a court transcript she was reading. Notes lined the margins.

“We got transcripts from an inmate, and his notes are on the side as to what he’s thinking,” Belluscio said. “It’s interesting to see cases … from this view.”

In stage three, students build a case for the inmate’s innocence.

“Stage three is the gritty stuff,” third-year Temple law student Noor Taj said. “You get to pretend you’re an investigator, and you start unraveling the case. It’s kind of fun.”

Students enjoy the hands-on approach, which gives them the opportunity to handle several cases in a variety of stages. The downside is that students don’t get to see one case from start to finish.

“The time frame is kind of annoying because there’s little we can do in four months,” Rudman said. “In the case I’m working on, we’re doing a Post-Conviction Relief Act, which was filed in May 2005, and it’s still in the initial stages. It’s a very complicated case.”

His case involves a death-row inmate, a mistrial, a jailhouse snitch, a police sketch that “looks nothing like him” and neighbors who identified someone else as the perpetrator, Rudman said.

In comparison to his peers, third-year Villanova law student Russell Williams got to experience a thrilling part of the Innocence Project – exoneration.

Last summer, Williams interned at the Connecticut Innocence Project. In August, inmate Kenneth Ireland was absolved for rape and murder after serving 21 years in prison. It furthered his interest in the project and criminal defense law.

“As soon as it popped up at Temple, I knew I absolutely wanted to do it,” Williams said.

Interning at the Innocence Project is part of an elective class that fulfills law students’ clinical studies requirement. The class is also open to Villanova law students like Williams and Belluscio.

Students don’t have to be in the class or in law school to intern.

“We can always use more volunteers,” Bluestine said. “We get 100 letters per week. We have a lot of work to do.”

Non-law students work only in stage one, reviewing inmates’ letters because stage two and three require more specialized training, Bluestine said. She encourages law and journalism students to volunteer because they have the training to take on more responsibility.

No matter what stage students are working on, though, they’re guaranteed to learn a lot about the process of the U.S. criminal justice system and how people are mistreated within it.

“Every time I hear an inmate’s story it’s usually a case of bad lawyering,” Taj said. “How many times the same person can be let down is very upsetting.”

Rudman described a trip to a prison in Graterford, Pa., where the class spoke to inmates who claimed they were innocent. He was surprised that the inmates whose stories were more believable were less vocal about their innocence.

“They don’t talk about it,” he said. “People shut down when they’re getting blocked at every step for 20 years.”

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Oct 20, 2009 at 8:26 pm Leave a comment

NO DISCRIMINATION in HIRING of EX-CONS

This article originally appeared at The Temple News on Sept. 29, 2009.

Hiring ex-offenders gets Philly businesses a tax break, but Temple has no specific policy.

According to a recent study, 40,000 ex-convicts from federal, state and local prisons come to Philadelphia each year. One-third of them reside in the areas surrounding Temple.

Buzz surrounding the Philadelphia Eagles has revolved primarily around the team’s new quarterback, ex-convict Michael Vick, after he signed in August. What many Philadelphians aren’t hearing, though, is that the franchise was offered a tax break, as any company would, by the city’s Mayor’s Office for the Re-entry of Ex-Offenders.

The Eagles turned down the tax break, which MORE grants to encourage companies to hire ex-felons in an effort to reduce repeat incarceration.

Vick’s situation represents a larger issue surrounding employment opportunities for those released from prison.

While Temple doesn’t have a specific hiring policy for ex-offenders, the university does not discriminate, said Ray Betzner, assistant vice president of university communications.

“We do have programs that hire as many local residents as we can,” Betzner said. “That’s very important to us, and we’ve been making great strides.”

Temple’s Community Outreach and Hiring Program targets eight communities surrounding Main Campus to provide employment and career development opportunities. In 2006, 102 local residents were hired from these communities.

Temple officials involved with the hiring of employees at the university – Harry Young, associate vice president of employment, and William Hart, director of community outreach and hiring – did not return requests for comment on the university’s hiring of ex-offenders.

A 2007 report by two University of Pennsylvania professors found that 40,000 ex-cons from federal, state and local prisons come to the city per year.

Wayne Welsh, a Temple criminal justice professor, said one in four men in Philadelphia have been or are currently under some kind of criminal justice supervision.

“There are so many ex-offenders running around in the poorest communities in Philly,” Welsh said. “Chances are, we’re coming into contact with a number of ex-offenders everyday…whether at Temple or the bus stop.”

In 2005, one-third of offenders returning to Philadelphia lived in neighborhoods around Temple, including Fairhill, North Central, Hartranft and Strawberry Mansion, the UPenn report said.

Yet few services target this population. In Fairhill, there are seven organizations that provide services to ex-offenders for the 1,101 ex-prisoners who returned in 2005.

According to the report, 63 percent of ex-offenders are arrested for a felony, serious misdemeanor or parole violation within three years of release. Statistically, 47 percent of these will be re-convicted, and 41 percent will return to prison.

With the number of inmates skyrocketing in recent years – Philadelphia Prison System numbers doubled to 8,000 from 1985 to 2005, Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison decided to implement a Re-entry Task Force last spring.

Welsh is part of the new task force.

“The problem is we have all these different agencies, and they all do different things,” Welsh said. “The basic mission is to develop a strategic plan, to bring together all these different agencies in a somewhat cohesive way.”

Welsh said the task force will begin by taking inventory. Then, they’ll try to fill in the gaps with existing resources. Members of the task force hope to receive funding from the federal government’s Second Chance program, he said.

Universities in Philadelphia can play a large role in data organization and, like Temple, have the opportunity to employ high numbers of ex-offenders, but they aren’t the only ones.

Currently in Philadelphia, “there’s some strong support for doing a better job on re-entry,” Welsh said. He knows it won’t be easy, he said, but he remains optimistic.

“There are many other employees in the city and region who could potentially hire large numbers of ex-offenders, if they could be convinced ex-offenders have the skills or potential skills to be good, productive employees.”

Sep 29, 2009 at 8:19 pm Leave a comment


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