Breaking Prison Walls

As many as 5% of those behind bars are innocent. Is our justice system truly just?

Sofia Ascorbe doesn’t think so.

Today, she is doing something to change the system as a student attorney for the Wisconsin Innocence Project, which is part of an international non-profit that seeks to exonerate the wrongfully convicted.

As a Marquette University honors student, she dreamed of being a lawyer who could lead and make positive social changes. Then stories on Facebook led to this journey in her career.

Before she learned about the Wisconsin Innocence Project or the clinic at UW-Madison, she followed Facebook posts from the national branch of the Innocence project in New York.

The cases she discovered in her timeline exposed the reality of a world where the definition of justice was closer to good enough than to fair.

She felt compelled to act.

Dan Barrett from Marquette University’s Office of Marketing and Communication sat down with Sofia to find out more about her work, her mission and her pursuit of justice.

Dan: What about these stories drew you in?

Sofia: There’s something interesting about our criminal justice system being viewed as this fair structure of justice — because it’s called the criminal JUSTICE system — so [one] wouldn’t expect it to be unfair or unjust and when I read those stories, I realized that there are unfair aspects of it and I wanted to be a part of [changing that] somehow.

Dan: What is the biggest misconception about the criminal justice system?

Sofia: That only guilty people are imprisoned — there is this assumption that an innocent person wouldn’t get convicted, whether it’s at a jury trial or not, but it does happen [and it’s] because of [misleading evidence, which includes] false confessions, or mistaken eyewitness identifications.

Studies estimate that between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the United States are innocent.

Dan: It seems like the work done by the Innocence Project fights the effects of the criminal justice system, but is there work being done that tries to change the structures of the system?

Sofia: Yes and I think a good step in change is letting the public know how the system works in a flawed way. I also know of some organizations that try to end the pipeline from certain school districts to jail, in communities where a lot of their population ends up in prison. In Milwaukee there’s a huge problem — for African American males in their 30's, there’s over a 50% chance that they have been imprisoned at some point in their life (graph shown below.) And there are also programs that try to change the climate of police and community relations.

Collected from a 2013 study done by the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee on Mass Incarceration of African American Males

… and I don’t think either education or awareness are THE solution, but I think they are part of the solution. Just being educated on how the system works is a huge step to a solution, because people are motivated to help out and be part of the change if they know what’s going on.

Dan: Is there a way to fix the issue of wrongful conviction or is that a reality of the justice system?

Sofia: I think it is a reality, but convicting innocent people can be significantly reduced by investigating flawed evidence like coerced confessions and [its causes], and investigating those policies of interrogation. Science is also helping us a lot — we have more sophisticated DNA testing, and that really helps reduce the number of wrongful convictions or help correct them if they’ve already happened.

Dan: What does it take to free an innocent person?

Sofia: It takes a lot.

This summer I actually had an amazing experience and one of our clients, Daniel Scheidell, was granted a new trial — which basically means his convictions were overturned or dropped — but a person isn’t free just because they are granted a new trial…

I was really excited and so was my team but, in reality, a person isn’t free for a number of reasons — they could be pending a new trial because the state decides to pursue it again and they could be pending an appeal if the state decides to appeal the decision that the judge made. We experienced all of this with our client, and it’s really frustrating because you think — okay it works — we’re successful — but they’re still there [in prison]. So we have to make sure that going forward we can still help them. Their support network might have changed, social welfare services aren’t going to be there for him unless we try and we apply for those things. The re-entry portion of it is also very frustrating and very complicated.

It’s a long process.

Sofia and her team with their client Dan Scheidell, after 20 years in prison, was released in July.

Dan: Is there anything that can really make up for that lost time? Is there any part of dealing with clients like this that is fair?

Sofia: I don’t think that anything can make up for the time that is lost because being able to sit on the couch with your family and watch a movie is not something that you can put a price on, especially when they miss years and years. Most states compensate exonerees, and the Wisconsin compensation rate is currently capped at $25,000 — a significantly lower amount than the $50,000 per year wrongfully spent in prison (and no cap) that the Federal government recommends. I think [compensation] is a step in the right direction, especially because many of these exonerees don’t have job prospects, and to get their feet on the ground to even apply for any social services, they need a means of living, food, shelter, clothes… so, I think that’s a good step, but hopefully we can make more progress on the current amount.

The state of Wisconsin awards a maximum of $25,000 total in compensation at a maximum rate of $5,000 for each year served, comparatively in Texas, the highest compensating state, “a wrongfully convicted person is entitled to $80,000 per year of wrongful incarceration, an annuity, as well as $25,000 per year spent on parole or as a registered sex offender. The wrongfully convicted person is also entitled to compensation for child support payments, tuition for up to 120 hours at a career center or public institution of higher learning, reentry and reintegration services, and the opportunity to buy into the Texas State Employee Health Plan.”

Dan: Is there something that you or others can do for the people that can’t get their convictions overturned? Or for the prison population as a whole?

Sofia: Definitely, I think visiting people in prison is a huge step toward making it easier for them. I’ve experienced people telling me that they haven’t had a visitor in years. What that does to someone emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually? — I can’t even imagine. Just for a prisoner to know someone on their team is a huge deal — especially given our particularly large prison population. Additionally, learning more about the causes of wrongful convictions in order to prevent them, and continuing to be an advocate in any way for all who have been treated unfairly within the criminal justice system are great ways to create positive change.

Dan: I feel like doing work like this can be a scary thing, I don’t know how many people would run to sign up to visit a bunch of prisoners — why is it so important that this happens?

Sofia: I think [visiting prisoners] is important because they are people too, and as I have learned, not everyone ends up there for the right reasons, and it is important not to forget the people in society that have just been shunned and put away somewhere — it could potentially be people you know or people who have had similar struggles and life experiences as yourself. It’s important to stay connected to these people and a big part of that is seeing someone and saying ‘hey, the world hasn’t forgotten about you’— because a lot of time prisoners think that.

Dan: What are some of the highlights that you have had working with the project?

Sofia: My client, Dan Scheidell, was released from prison this summer after the bail hearing our team attended. We stuck around Racine for about 10 hours until the jail would release him. When he was released, we were with his brother and the rest of my team — his brother had come to take him home. That was by far the most amazing experience I’ve ever had — just to see someone come out looking so positive after having spent 20 years in a prison cell, for something that he didn’t do, and he hugged each of us. It was quite an emotional experience, he was even joking — where’s the fence? — it really was surreal. Our team really felt it — and we were just happy that he could be with his family.

Dan: What advice would you give to someone entering the field of criminal justice?

Sofia: My advice would be to always look at the other side, in whatever you want to do, whether it be going to law school or otherwise, there’s always another side. If someone wants to be a prosecutor, I think it would be a good experience to speak with defendants, and to see how they are treated during trial, and if someone wanted to be a defense attorney, [it would be good] to speak with victims of crimes and see what they go through. The same thing applies in any legal field — just look at it from another side, because it adds a wholeness to what you’re doing on your side and I think you can fight for something better if you know what all of the players are going through.

Dan: How much does perspective play into the Innocence Project?

Sofia: So much — Perspective plays a big part in what I do — and I want to delve into different perspectives and [be able] to see what’s behind them so I can bring that to the work that I am doing. What has my client gone through? What did the trial attorneys use to convict my client, and why? If there were witnesses and/or victims to the crime, what was their experience like? Did they participate at trial? These questions and their answers can help me better serve my clients and the needs they have in their cases.

Dan: What is the reality of the criminal justice system?

Sofia: That’s a hard question — there are a lot of good intentions. I think sometimes it’s less of a system of justice than it should be and more of a system of being tough on crime — and sometimes it fails. Too many criminal justice systems operate as if deterrence, punishment, and making their communities feel safer through a conviction are their only penological goals. They might not take the precautions to assure the accuracy of who they are convicting, or how to rehabilitate those prisoners back into society.

Sofia is from Miami, Florida and graduated from Marquette University in 2014 with an Honors Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Philosophy. She is now pursuing her law degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School. She will work as a Student Attorney with the Innocence Project of Wisconsin through the end of her second academic year of law school.

Sofia is interested in criminal law, sentencing, and labor & employment law. When asked where she sees herself in 10 years, she responded, “I see myself not shying away from uncomfortable issues within whichever field(s) I practice, helping to come up with better ways to solve them, and being one of the many actors toward a positive reform in my community.”

You can learn more about the Wisconsin Innocence Project here.

Dan Barrett, Student Intern at Marquette University’s Office of Marketing and Communication

Marquette University

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