Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2022, $366,132)
The Pennsylvania Innocence Project works to exonerate those convicted of crimes they did not commit, to prevent innocent people from being prosecuted and convicted, and to help those wrongfully convicted transition to freedom. The Project requests the support of the Bureau of Justice Assistance in the amount of $366,131,25 to establish a Justice Fellowship Program. This Program will build the capacity of Project staff to address the review and disposition of the enormous number of requests received from incarcerated individuals with claims of actual innocence. By placing one Justice Fellow in each of the primary locations of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Project will strengthen the case review process, address backlog, and more swiftly free at least some of the individuals who have been languishing in prison for years – some for decades – as a result of wrongful convictions. The proposed Program will further enhance the Project’s ability to address the crucial education, reform, and policy aspects of its mission, and help train the next generation of post-conviction lawyers.
The Pennsylvania Innocence Project is the only established innocence organization in the Commonwealth devoted to wrongful conviction review and post-conviction litigation. The Project operates in a challenging jurisdiction: Pennsylvania has among the most restrictive post-conviction laws in this country. Since its establishment in 2009, the Project has received more than 7,000 requests for assistance from incarcerated persons– hundreds every year. In recent years, including with the support of a Bureau of Justice Assistance grant-funded program, the Project has conducted a strategic planning process, critically examined and significantly improved the efficiency of its intake and case screening process, and been able to move cases through the first of its four-stage review process more quickly. However, the number of cases in the screening, evaluation, investigation, and litigation queues continues to mount. The proposed Justice Fellowship Program will address the high volume of cases we have in review, the speed with which we can move cases through review stages, and perhaps most urgently, the reduction of time that clients with demonstrably valid innocence claims remain incarcerated while we pursue avenues to relief. Through capacity building, even in this challenging state, the Pennsylvania Innocence Project can be a model for wrongful conviction review and prevention.