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Advocates Take on Failures of U.S. Criminal Justice System

NEW YORK—The Open Society Institute today named 18 outstanding scholars, lawyers, advocates, and journalists to be 2008’s Soros Justice Fellows. In total they will receive more than $1,125,000 to support their creative and groundbreaking work to reform the American justice system.

The new fellows include a community organizer who fights to protect the rights of noncitizen detainees after seeing her own family torn apart by federal immigration policies; a lawyer who compares his own treatment in the criminal justice system with that of his clients on death row to spark debate about capital punishment; and a man and woman on the opposite sides of a wrongful rape conviction who now work together to raise awareness about the problems with eyewitness testimony.

“America’s criminal justice system is broken, and too often perpetuates inequality rather than ensuring justice,” said Ann Beeson, director of the Open Society Institute’s U.S. Programs. “The Soros Justice Fellows are developing innovative solutions to expose the deep flaws in the current system and to restore justice for all.”

The fellows, who are based in Arizona, California, Illinois, Louisiana, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, Washington, DC, and Northern Ireland, will receive a 12 to 18 month stipend ranging from $45,000 to $79,500. With this support, they will work on the local, state, and national level to address critical issues such as death penalty reform, racism in the criminal justice system, prison growth and privatization, and the reintegration of formerly incarcerated individuals into society.

Since 1997, the Open Society Institute has offered over $13 million in grants to more than 250 Soros Justice Fellows as part of a wider campaign to strengthen justice in the United States and around the world. OSI and the Soros foundations network have given away over $6 billion to build open democratic societies, including more than $796 million in the U.S.

2008 Soros Justice Fellows

Juvenile Justice

Sujatha Baliga; lawyer and advocate; Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth; Oakland, CA
California has one of the country’s highest rates of juvenile incarceration and recidivism. Baliga will work to reduce Oakland’s over-reliance on mass incarceration by advocating community-based alternatives for youth, which address the underlying causes of youth crime and recidivism.

Patricia Soung; lawyer and advocate; Children and Family Justice Center; Chicago, IL
The U.S. is one of a handful of countries that allow youth under 18 to receive sentences of life without parole—a sentence handed out to over 2,000 juvenile offenders. Soung will use legal advocacy, community organizing, and research to work to abolish life without parole sentences for juveniles.

Shantel Vachani; lawyer and advocate; Learning Rights Law Center; Los Angeles, CA
An estimated 70 percent of the nearly 4,500 youths in Los Angeles County juvenile detention struggle with a learning disability. Vachani will create an innovative advocacy model to counteract the trends that “push” special-needs youth out of the public education system and into the juvenile corrections system.

Racial Disparities and Sentencing Reform

Caroline Cincotta; lawyer; American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants’ Rights Project; San Francisco, CA
Federal prisons bar noncitizens from participating in rehabilitative programs, subjecting them to longer sentences and harsher conditions. Cincotta will research, analyze, and develop legal challenges to these discriminatory policies.

Paul Hofer; scholar; Washington, DC
Over the last three decades the federal prison population has quintupled. Hofer will research and write a series of articles and reports that assess the dramatic widening of racial disparities in sentencing and the reduction of judicial discretion under federal sentencing guidelines.

Harry Levine; scholar and advocate; New York, NY
In cities across the nation, African-Americans are arrested for marijuana possession at a rate three to ten times higher than whites, despite the fact that there is no similar gap in marijuana use. Levine will research the alarming trend toward race, gender, and age bias in marijuana possession arrests.

Death Penalty and Wrongful Conviction

William Sothern; author, journalist, and lawyer; New Orleans, LA
Sothern will complete two books, Put Away Childish Things and Until You Are Dead, that seek to inform the public debate surrounding capital punishment and juxtapose Sothern’s own experience in the criminal justice system with those of his death row clients.

Jennifer Thompson-Cannino; advocate and author; Winston-Salem, NC
Ronald Cotton; advocate and author; Mebane, NC
Erin Torneo; author; Los Angeles, CA

More than 200 people in the U.S. have had their convictions overturned by DNA evidence, and three-quarters of these cases involved mistaken eyewitness testimony. Cotton and Thompson-Cannino (with Torneo) are the authors of Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption, which illuminates this problem through their story: Cotton spent 11 years in prison after Thompson-Cannino mistakenly identified him as the man who had raped her.

Immigrant Detention and Deportation

Luissana Santibañez; community organizer; Grassroots Leadership; Austin, TX
The massive expansion of federal detention centers for noncitizens has wrought havoc on family and community relationships. Santibañez, whose own family has been torn apart by recent crackdowns, will build a Texas-based network of former detainees to elevate community awareness and build support for policies that protect the rights of detainees.

Indigent Defense

Janet Moore; lawyer; Ohio Justice & Policy Center; Cincinnati, OH
Ohio’s ineffective and inefficient public defender system contributes to a class disparity in incarceration rates. Moore will work to reform Ohio's current system for providing counsel to low-income residents.

Joshua Perry; lawyer; Orleans Public Defenders; New Orleans, LA
In New Orleans, indigent defendants often face months of pretrial detention and endure harsh over-sentencing. Perry will coordinate special litigation efforts at the Orleans Public Defenders to alleviate these problems.

Federal Drug and Gang Policy

Susan Phillips; scholar; Los Angeles, CA
Phillips will complete Operation Fly Trap: Gangs, Drugs and the Law, a book examining how federal policies directed at combating drugs and gangs actually generate and sustain the conditions that perpetuate poverty, crime, and violence in communities of color.

Solitary Confinement

Alexandra Smith; community organizer; Urban Justice Center–Mental Health Project; New York, NY
New York State allows prisoners with serious psychiatric disabilities to be placed in solitary confinement, despite evidence that it often causes severe psychiatric deterioration. Smith will monitor New York State prisons’ compliance with new legislation diverting these prisoners from solitary confinement.

Brackette Williams; scholar and advocate; American Friends Service Committee; Tucson, AZ
For three decades, states across the country have expanded their use of solitary confinement and supermax security units. Williams will study individuals in Arizona who spent one or more years in these conditions and identify how such confinement affects their re-entry into society, family, and community.

Mass Incarceration

Craig Gilmore; community organizer and author; Los Angeles, CA
The movement to reform U.S. prisons is growing rapidly, but the intricacies of the prison system remain little-understood. Gilmore will create multimedia primers on the U.S. prison system to assist activists and organizations working to challenge mass incarceration.

Rethinking Crime and Punishment

Shadd Maruna; scholar; Belfast, Northern Ireland
The American public has increasingly rejected redemptive criminal justice policies in recent years. Maruna will complete Redemption RIP?, a book exploring the future of self-improvement and rehabilitation as ideals in the U.S. criminal justice system and American society.


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