“Though I had heard so many great things about her beforehand, I was still unprepared for just how wonderful her spirit was…”
My interest in criminal justice began during my freshman year at the University of Florida when I first learned about the Innocence Project and cases involving wrongful convictions. I was horrified by the injustice of an innocent person serving time for a crime they did not commit and knew I wanted to help fight to change the policies that allowed this to happen.
Shortly before entering law school, however, I began to see that the problems with the justice system go far deeper than wrongful convictions. Mass incarceration, unfair sentencing laws, and steep barriers to reentry are all consequences of a severely broken system. I decided to spend my summer at OJPC because I wanted to help a different population of people affected by these issues than I had in the past: those that society had essentially cast aside because, unlike many exonerees, their criminal records did not come with proven claims of innocence.
Working at OJPC opened my eyes to just how many barriers people with criminal records face. So many people have already served time for their past mistakes, yet continue to be punished through criminal sanctions. What was even more jarring was seeing how stark the contrast often was between how an individual appeared to society on paper compared to who they were as a person. The clients who came in for help applying for CQEs were intelligent, kind, and thoughtful, with hopes and dreams like anyone else. Within a few minutes of talking with them it was clear they would excel if given the chance to obtain meaningful employment, yet as it stood their records prevented them from doing so.
In addition to returning citizens, my time at OJPC also helped to alter my view of incarcerated individuals. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to meet Tyra Patterson, whose case initially interested me because it involved actual innocence. Though I had heard so many great things about her beforehand, I was still unprepared for just how wonderful her spirit was; I can honestly say she is the kindest, most selfless person I have had the privilege of meeting. I now believe that Tyra deserves to be freed not only because of her innocence, but also because of the tremendous amount she could contribute to society.
Overall, OJPC taught me that we must start to recognize the humanity of people who have been incarcerated or have a criminal record. These are not “felons” or “criminals”; they are daughters and sons, mothers and fathers, or quite simply people. While they may have made mistakes in the past, they also have hopes of providing for their families, living a comfortable life, or pursuing career goals, and deserve to be given that opportunity. Wherever I end up after law school, I know it will involve client-centered advocacy and that humanizing my clients will now be one of my top priorities.
Molly Bunke, Harvard Law School