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UVA To Offer Evidence-based Guidance For Criminal Justice Reform

The University of Virginia says it will launch a legal initiative early next year – a program that could keep more innocent people out of local jails, state and national prisons.

This month, lawyers at UVA won pardons for three different men who did time in state prisons – among them is Emerson Stevens, a man who served 32 years for the murder of a Northern Neck woman on the basis of a single hair. The technique used to link that

Deirdre Enright
Professor Deirdre Enright will head UVA's new Project for Informed Reform

evidence with him is now considered junk science. Professor Deirdre Enright, who helped found the law school’s Innocence Project, was thrilled, but she admits such victories are bittersweet.

“That’s damage that will never be undone, and not letting it happen again would be the real gift."

So Enright is starting a new job – heading the Project for Informed Reform. Its mission is to sift through thousands of cases – to do research and collate information to guide law enforcement and those who make laws in America.

“We have the cases that show where everything goes off the rails," she explains. "For every issue there is in the criminal justice system, we have a case or 50. We can raise our hands and show you how these things happen.”

Her colleague, Professor Rachel Harmon, will join the effort. She and Enright have taught classes together and noticed, from year to year, how expert opinions vary.

Rachel Harmon
Professor Rachel Harmon, who heads the Center for Criminal Justice at UVA's School of Law, will oversee the Project for Informed Reform.

“There are debates on many sides of many issues that are real and difficult," she says. "The more you study an issue as a lawyer the more you realize how complicated it is, and that means there are often good arguments on both sides.”

Harmon and Enright will put conventional wisdom under the microscope and gather data to guide public policies and make evidence-based recommendations.

“We might study local matters – disparities in a particular police department in traffic stops. We might study Virginia-specific issues, like how long it takes for an average bail hearing, or we might study national questions like the number of shaken baby prosecutions that are being pursued nationwide," Harmon says. "Bail reform, policing reform, parole reform – there are so many issues that are pressing both here in Virginia and nationwide. I expect we’ll be involved in a range of them.”

Already, she adds, officials are asking for help, and students are asking to be part of this new initiative.

“You know many subjects in law school are just about money, and criminal law is not. It’s about human life and what happens to real people and vindicating the interests of victims, holding defendants responsible, treating them fairly. That matters in a way that very few other things do in students’ minds.”

Some of them will sign-on with the Innocence Project, but others won’t be satisfied dealing with cases one at a time.

“Students want to do more than study criminal law or even practice it," Harmon asserts. "They want to transform it. They want to participate in on-going public policy debates, and they want to be ready for those debates when they graduate. This is an opportunity for students to conduct research and analysis on criminal justice reform matters that could be used immediately by policy makers.”

Enright and Harmon say the project will offer reports, databases and recommendations from a single place, but they hope to collaborate with other law schools in the research they do. The Informed Reform Project will begin work in January.

Updated: August 19, 2021 at 8:51 AM EDT
The University of Virginia is a financial supporter of Radio IQ.
Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief