Rutgers-Camden is launching the New Jersey Innocence Project to help residents who have been wrongly convicted of crimes and are now seeking exoneration. The project focuses the expertise of Rutgers faculty in law, forensic science, criminal justice and social work.

Jill Friedman, co-founder of the New Jersey Innocence Project and associate dean for pro bono and public interest at Rutgers Law School in Camden, said they are currently searching for an executive director for the project. However, they are not ready to accept inquiries from people who claim they were wrongfully convicted and are innocent. Hopefully, that will happen in the fall.

When that does, said said people can fill out a form to ask to have their cases reviewed and then there will be a very extensive, detailed process for identifying those cases that hold the promise of resulting in an exoneration. They will prioritize the cases of people in prison, she added.

The National Innocence Project estimates that up to 5% of incarcerated people are serving time, some for several decades, for crimes they did not commit. According to The National Registry of Exonerations, 42 wrongly convicted people in New Jersey have been exonerated through the efforts of lawyers and innocence projects since 1989, when data began being collected.

Friedman said the founders are deeply distressed by the injustices in the justice system. There is a disproportionate impact of injustice on black and brown people as well as poor people. "If you can think about the very worst possible thing that can happen to you in the justice system: It's you didn't do the crime and you're sitting in prison an innocent person because of mistakes or because of poor policies and procedures or because of outright graft or someone had a vendetta against you and testified falsely," said Friedman.

The project will offer appellate legal services for those who have been convicted but believe they are innocent.  It will also offer social work services. Friedman said people who are wrongly incarcerated, as well as their families, suffer tremendously during that incarceration and afterwards.

Social work students will help clients connect with resources to  help them transition back to life. That includes finding a place to live, finding a job, getting a driver's license and receiving the proper counseling.

"Our clients, we anticipate will need medical, psychological services, vocational services and we hope to have a significant influence on policy, law enforcement and criminal justice policies in the state and beyond. Rutgers is extremely well-situated to support that kind of work," Friedman said.

She added currently there are no services for exonerees when they leave prison. They are not able to obtain any service or resource offered to people who have been found guilty, served their sentence and then released on parole.

Until the launch of this Rutgers initiative, she said New Jersey had been the only state that did not have an innocence organization associated with the National Innocence Network based in New York.

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