Foundation Taps Visionaries to Reform U.S. Justice System

NEW YORK—The Open Society Institute today awarded Soros Justice Fellowships to 17 outstanding individuals working to restore fairness to a deeply flawed criminal justice system.

The lawyers, advocates, scholars, and journalists will tackle issues from death penalty reform and the criminalization of immigrants to juvenile justice and the challenges of parenting in prison. The Soros Justice Fellows will receive a total of more than $1.3 million.

"At a time of uncertainty and hardship for many in America, criminal justice looms as one of our most pressing challenges," said Ann Beeson, executive director of the Open Society Institute's U.S. Programs. "The new group of Soros Justice Fellows will bring fresh ideas to fix a failed system that breaks America's promise of fairness under the law."

Among the new fellows is a community organizer in Nashville whose son was murdered in street violence and who spent more than half her life entangled in the criminal justice system. She will train current and former gang members to become advocates for reform.

Another fellow, a lawyer in Seattle, will challenge a common police practice that targets homeless and poor people and bans them from entire city neighborhoods. In Virginia, a parent whose son was incarcerated in the juvenile justice system is now a full-time advocate for reform in a state that houses youth in adult jails. 

The fellows will each receive a stipend of $45,000 to $79,500 to undertake projects lasting 12-18 months.

Since 1997, The Open Society Institute has awarded more than $14 million in grants to Soros Justice Fellows as part of a broader effort to strengthen justice in the United States. In the last 25 years, the foundation has given away over $7 billion to build open, democratic societies around the world, including more than $940 million in the United States.

2009 Soros Justice Fellows

Mass Incarceration

Khalilah Brown-Dean; scholar; Yale University; New Haven, CT
Brown-Dean will test voter registration and mobilization strategies in five high-incarceration communities in Connecticut. Although Connecticut reformed its felony disenfranchisement laws in 2001, confusion about voter eligibility has resulted in weakened civic engagement.

Renay Frankel; lawyer; Committee for Public Counsel Services; Boston, MA
Frankel will create an innovative partnership between criminal and civil legal services in Massachusetts to ensure more effective legal representation for low-income defendants. A lack of coordination among attorneys can result in a person pleading guilty to a criminal charge without understanding that a conviction can significantly hamper their ability to find a job, secure housing, or pursue an education.  

Patrice Gaines; author; Lake Wylie, SC
Gaines will write a series of articles exploring the impact of mass incarceration on African American communities. In some neighborhoods, half of the young male population is in prison or on probation or parole.

Catherine Greensfelder; lawyer; National Housing Law Project; Oakland, CA
Greensfelder will work with community organizations to improve access to housing for formerly incarcerated people. Laws that ban individuals with recent convictions from public housing have led to endemic homelessness among people on parole and probation.

Lauren Melodia; community organizer; Center for Community Alternatives; New York, NY
Melodia will work with community members in rural "prison towns" to re-think their local economies. In New York, as in many other states, the warehousing of urban residents in remote rural prisons has proven to be a poor substitute for viable economic development. Melodia's project involves a collaborative effort to help these rural areas develop sustainable models for growth.

Nancy Mullane; broadcast journalist and producer; San Francisco, CA
Mullane will produce a radio documentary about men and women awaiting parole in California. A 1988 law politicized the parole process by making the governor, and not parole boards, the final authority on early release decisions for people serving life sentences with the possibility of parole. Mullane's project will take listeners inside a world where people struggle to reform their lives amid diminishing hope that they will ever be granted parole.

Jessica Pupovac; journalist; Chicago, IL
Pupovac will explore the emerging crisis of an aging prison population. By 2010, one-third of all federal and state prison inmates will be over the age of 50-a development that portends significant hardship for people both inside and outside of prison.  

Immigrant Detention and Wrongful Arrest

Sam Brooke; lawyer; Southern Poverty Law Center; Montgomery, AL
Brooke will engage in advocacy and public education to curb arbitrary detentions and abuses at Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities in the southeastern United States.

Amalia Greenberg Delgado; lawyer; American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California; San Francisco, CA
Greenberg Delgado will develop a public education program to counter myths about immigrants and crime, and advocate for improved law-enforcement practices in immigrant communities. State and local police in California increasingly target people based not on suspected criminal activity but on supposed immigration violations. This tactic has made immigrant neighborhoods less safe and places a severe burden on families and communities.

Juvenile Justice

Liane Rozzell; community organizer; Legal Aid Justice Center; Charlottesville, VA
Rozzell will build an organization of family, youth, and community allies to reform Virginia's juvenile justice system. Many children in Virginia are incarcerated or placed in the adult system, and children of color are targeted disproportionately.

Reentry

Clemmie Greenlee; community organizer; Urban EpiCenter; Nashville, TN
Greenlee will train current and former gang members in Nashville to advocate for criminal justice reform. A formerly incarcerated community organizer and advocate, Greenlee believes that gang-involved youth have the potential to become positive agents of change. Since the murder of her son over a decade ago, Greenlee has devoted herself to helping those with criminal records transform their lives and their communities.

Policing

Anita Khandelwal; lawyer; The Defender Association; Seattle, WA
Khandelwal will challenge a common practice by the Seattle Police Department that targets homeless and poor people and bans them from entire city neighborhoods for years at a time.

Death Penalty

Wyatt Feeler; lawyer; ACLU Capital Punishment Project; Durham, NC
Feeler's project seeks to bring a measure of fairness to the jury selection process and thereby reduce the number of death sentences. Jury selection in death penalty cases is heavily skewed in favor of the prosecution. As a result, jurors in capital cases tend to be more willing than the public at large to sentence defendants to death.

Kristin Traicoff; lawyer; Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana; New Orleans, LA
Traicoff will challenge Louisiana's lethal injection protocol. Lethal injection enjoys an undeserved reputation as a humane way to kill. For years, advocates and medical professionals have maintained that the process can produce excruciating pain.

Halting the Export of Prisoners

Carrie Ann Shirota; lawyer and advocate; Maui Economic Opportunity, Inc.; Wailuku, HI
Shirota will work to mitigate and reduce the transfer of incarcerated Hawaiians to mainland prisons thousands of miles away. Hawaii's growing reliance on transfers severs family ties, disconnects Hawaiians from cultural traditions, gives rise to prison gangs, and complicates community reintegration. 

Parenting from Prison

Shannon Heffernan; broadcast journalist and producer; Chicago, IL
Heffernan will go into prisons and communities in the Chicago area to record the sorrows and aspirations of incarcerated parents. Although two-thirds of people in federal prisons and over one-half of those in state prisons are parents of minor children, few Americans understand the trials and heartbreak of those who try to maintain family ties while incarcerated.

Children's Literature and Criminal Justice

Katheryn Russell-Brown; scholar; Gainesville, FL
Russell-Brown, a criminologist and law professor, will develop children's books on criminal justice issues to help young people understand the court system, corrections, and the police. Despite the myriad ways the criminal justice system affects American families and communities, books for young children seldom discuss these issues.