Invest in a Better Oregon – Oregon Justice Resource Center

The mission of Oregon Justice Resource Center is to dismantle systemic discrimination in the administration of justice by promoting civil rights and enhancing the quality of legal representation for traditionally underserved communities. 

OREGON JUSTICE RESOURCE CENTER was founded to bring about a criminal justice system in Oregon that is protective of individual rights and liberties and where everyone enjoys equal treatment under the law.

We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Portland, Oregon, and founded in 2011.

We work in collaboration with other like-minded organizations to maximize our reach to serve underrepresented populations, to train future public interest lawyers, and to educate our community on civil rights and current civil liberties concerns. We provide legal services to currently and formerly incarcerated clients with a particular focus on populations typically underserved by the legal system, such as people of color and people living in poverty.

We complement our direct service to clients with integrative advocacy: combining litigation, legislative reform, and other policy and communications activities to bring about systemic change.

We train the public interest lawyers of tomorrow by providing opportunities to law students to work at our office in downtown Portland. Through us, they learn about important issues affecting the criminal justice system and gain valuable skills in investigation, research, and writing while working on cases.

We provide amicus curiae (friend of the court) assistance to cases presenting significant social justice issues or of particular concern to communities typically underserved by the legal system.

PROJECTS

OREGON INNOCENCE PROJECT

Hidden “O” Logo: The columns and bars represent the DNA testing form grid and the “O” letter form is constructed with the negative space between the “I” and “P”: the “I” and “P” also represent prison bars and the hidden “O” represents those Oregonians wrongfully incarcerated in our prisons and whose voices have been unheard until now.

We launched Oregon Innocence Project in 2014 with a mission to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, train law students, and promote legal reforms aimed at preventing wrongful convictions. The extraordinary number – not to overlook the shocking stories – of exonerations throughout the United States have proven
that our criminal justice system is systemically flawed and that reform is needed to help prevent future wrongful convictions.

Oregon is not exempt from error. Oregon, like every other state, is susceptible to the same causes of wrongful convictions, such as mistaken eyewitness identification, false confessions, and invalidated or improper forensic science. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been 10 exonerations in Oregon. Without a program in Oregon that focuses solely on wrongful convictions, there would be no certain way to know whether any of the people currently incarcerated here should in fact be freed.

Oregon Innocence Project is the only project of its kind in Oregon whose sole mission is to actively track inmates’ claims of innocence, investigate those claims, test DNA and other scientific evidence, and litigate where appropriate. We provide free legal assistance to inmates who assert factual innocence and where there is the possibility of proving innocence. As well as securing the release of the wrongfully convicted, we provide an outstanding educational experience for students.

We collaborate with all stakeholders (district attorneys, the defense bar, policymakers, police, victims’ rights groups, forensic scientists, laboratory managers, and others). Our goal is to build support for comprehensive criminal justice reform to improve eyewitness identification, interrogation practices, discovery practices, and other policies that do not serve to protect the innocent or punish the guilty.

Please note that Oregon Justice Resource Center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Oregon Innocence Project is administered by the Oregon Justice Resource Center and is not a separate 501(c)(3).

REENTRY LAW PROJECT

Our Reentry Law Project provides individual legal assistance to clients of MercyCorps Northwest who have recently been released from prison. Our clients need a wide range of forms of legal assistance, in particular with family law matters, debt, and understanding court judgments and other documents. We may help someone secure a driver’s license so they can get to work, address a past eviction so they can find housing, or modify a child support order so their contribution to the costs of raising their child fairly reflects their income.

Our aim is to reduce recidivism, improve public safety by addressing the unmet legal needs of people returning to the community after a period of incarceration, deal with the root causes of reoffending, and systematically reform and reduce the collateral consequences of convictions.

MercyCorps Northwest’s Reentry Transition Center provides an array of services to around 1000 formerly incarcerated people each year. Our partnership allows their clients to access free direct legal assistance including intakes, advice, and referrals to specialist attorneys.

We track information on trends and issues affecting our clients that may point to a need for changes in practice, policy, or law. Where we see change is needed, we will promote reform through public education and by engaging lawyers, courts, academics, policymakers, and legislators as well as those most directly affected by incarceration and its consequences.

We facilitate presentations to inmates by expert guests and formerly incarcerated individuals about relevant laws, government procedures, and practical tips about reentry concerns such as employment, housing, consumer law, family law, etc.

WOMEN’S JUSTICE PROJECT

Our Women in Prison Project Director, Julia Yoshimoto, speaking at our Women in Prison Conference

We created the Women’s Justice Project as the first and only program in Oregon to exclusively address the needs of women who are incarcerated. Nearly 1300 women are incarcerated in Oregon as of August 2015. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of women incarcerated in our state increased by 35 percent. The number of men incarcerated grew by 13 percent over the same period.

Our goals are to ensure that the criminal justice system treats women fairly, protects their health and safety, and makes it possible for them to successfully rejoin their communities when they are released. We do this through integrative advocacy: combining litigation, legislative reform, and other policy and communications initiatives.

We provide individual legal assistance to clients of Red Lodge Transition Services housed in Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Ore. Red Lodge aims to prevent the incarceration of Native Americans and assist those who are incarcerated in working toward a better life for themselves, their children, and their communities. We work with our clients to identify legal issues that might become barriers to success when they are released. We help to resolve these issues or to assist clients on how to plan around legal roadblocks.

We also want to start a wider conversation about how many women we are locking up in Oregon and why. We host the Women In Prison Conference to provide training and discussion opportunities to lawyers, social workers, counselors, and others who work with incarcerated women. In 2016, we will launch the HerStory collection, to gather the  personal stories of incarcerated women. We track information on trends and problems affecting our clients that may point to a need for changes in practice, policy or law. Where we see change is needed, we will promote reform through public education and by engaging lawyers, courts, academics, policymakers, and legislators as well as those most directly affected by incarceration and its consequences.

DEATH PENALTY

Oregonians have changed their minds about the ultimate punishment many times over the last century. In its most recent incarnation, the death penalty was reinstated by voters in 1984. That decision allows jurors in aggravated murder cases to sentence a convicted person to death, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, or life imprisonment.

Today there are 34 men and one woman on Oregon’s death row. Lethal injection is the method of execution that would be used if death sentences were being carried out but there is no current prospect of any executions taking place. This is due to a moratorium put in place by former Governor John Kitzhaber in 2011 and continued by his successor, Governor Kate Brown. The death penalty remains a sentencing option in aggravated murder trials and death sentences are still being handed down by Oregon’s courts.

Understanding of the problems with the death penalty continues to grow across the country. One of the most important issues is the number of people who have been sentenced to death and later exonerated because they were in fact innocent of the crimes of which they were convicted. As of October 2015, 156 people have been exonerated across 26 states. At the time these people were convicted, the juries who found them guilty firmly believed they were making the right decision. The prospect of innocent people being executed is one that rightly horrifies all of us.

Oregonians have spent tens of millions funding the death penalty since 1984, a cost that significantly outweighs that of sentencing a defendant to life without parole. Huge resources must be committed to death penalty cases by both prosecutors and defense attorneys. The years of appeals that follow a death sentence also have a significant price tag attached. Streamlining the appeals process is not the answer because it would increase the risk of innocent people ending up on death row. All this money could instead be invested in initiatives that would actually reduce crime in Oregon and make our communities safer.

While it might seem as though a punishment as serious as the death penalty would be fairly applied by prosecutors this is far from the case. There are disparities in the likelihood of a defendant receiving the death penalty based on the county in which he or she is on trial, the race and socio-economic status of the defendant and the victim(s), the quality of the legal representation the defendant can afford, and the whims of prosecutors in deciding whether or not to seek death.

The death penalty is a broken system that is not serving Oregonians well. Rather than pretend to continue to use capital punishment by sentencing people to death despite the moratorium, we would be better served by ending the use of the death penalty in our state and opting for life without the possibility of parole instead.

We are leading a working group of seven organizations coming together to end the death penalty in Oregon. The other members of the group are:

  • ACLU of Oregon
  • Amnesty International USA, Oregon Chapter
  • Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon
  • Oregon Capital Resource Center
  • Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association
  • Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty

We are studying public opinion on the death penalty, conducting legal research on the problems with Oregon’s death penalty, reaching out to opinion leaders and decision makers, and building our capacity and infrastructure.

AMICUS BRIEFS

Through our amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) project, we provide amicus assistance to cases in Oregon that present significant social justice issues related to criminal defense, civil rights, or juvenile justice, or are of particular importance to communities typically underserved by the legal system.

As part of our mission to advance civil rights and liberties through advocacy, we draft as well as sign on to amicus briefs on cutting-edge social justice issues facing Oregon courts. Amicus curiae briefs are an important way in which we contribute our analysis of significant but undeveloped aspects of critical cases.

LAW STUDENT TRAINING

We offer an exciting opportunity for students to engage in a critical examination of and participation in important and complex issues in the criminal justice system.

Students have the opportunity to learn about and work on:

  • cases/issues related to innocence through Oregon Innocence Project
  • advancing criminal justice reform (including appellate advocacy)
  • post incarceration prisoner reentry through the Reentry Law

Students involved in the Clinic have the chance to:

  • conduct legal investigations
  • conduct legal-fact research and analysis
  • write motions, briefs, and reports for filing in state trial and appellate courts
  • interview and advise clients
  • attend legal and legislative meetings and hearings
  • meet and participate in strategy sessions with members of the bar, the judiciary, and community

STAFF PROFILES

Executive Director Bobbin Singh

Bobbin Singh is the founding Executive Director of Oregon Justice Resource Center. He was born and raised in Atlanta, GA., and deeply inspired by the great figures of the civil rights movement in the South. He believes that mass incarceration, including over incarceration, mass conviction, and wrongful convictions, is in fact the greatest civil rights crisis of our time and we must all take ownership of it. Bobbin manages OJRC, oversees staff, volunteers, and all programs, and serves as our principal spokesperson. Working with our Board of Directors, he sets policy and direction for OJRC.

Director of Policy & Advocacy Kate Gonsalves

Kate Gonsalves has led political campaigns with community groups, progressive nonprofits, and unions in multiple states. She received her master’s degree in politics as a Rotary Scholar at the University of British Columbia. Her commitment to criminal justice reform stems from her work with Dr David Baldus and the American Civil Liberties Union linking race and death penalty sentencing along with coursework examining race and mass incarceration under Dr. Angela Davis.

Director of Communication Alice Lundell

Alice Lundell is an experienced news reporter and marketing and communications professional. Alice received her BA (Hons) Classics from the University of Leeds, England. After graduation, she spent a decade working for the BBC and ITV as a journalist and broadcaster in her native United Kingdom before immigrating to the United States.

Alice has been channeling her commitment to social justice and poverty alleviation into helping nonprofits better communicate their message since her arrival in Oregon.

Law Fellow/Staff Attorney Brittney Plesser

Brittney Plesser works almost exclusively on Oregon Innocence Project cases and issues. Although new to our staff, Brittney has been working at Oregon Innocence Project since September 2014 as a legal extern. Before joining OIP, she was a legal intern at the California Innocence Project in San Diego, and a legal intern at the ACLU of Oregon.

Brittney is dedicated to social justice and criminal justice reform and is thrilled to have the opportunity to cultivate her passion as our first Law Fellow/Staff Attorney.

Legal Director Steve Wax

Steve Wax served as Oregon’s Federal Public Defender for more than 30 years, and was one of the longest-serving public defenders in the country. Steve and his federal defender team successfully represented six men formerly held as “enemy combatants” in Guantanamo. He has taught at Lewis & Clark Law School, serves as an ethics prosecutor for the Oregon State Bar, and lectures throughout the country. He has been honored for his work by numerous groups and is a fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers.

Kafka Comes to America, his book about representing Portland attorney Brandon Mayfield and the men in Guantanamo, won four national awards.

Associate Director Amie Wexler

Amie Wexler graduated from Lewis & Clark Law School in 1999. She has been an ardent advocate for access to justice and worked across the nonprofit sector while in law school and in her years since graduating. Most recently, Amie worked at Portland State University’s Student Legal Services, providing legal access for students who would not otherwise have had representation. Amie brings her fundraising, lobbying, and legal experience to OJRC to grow our capacity.

Project Director, Reentry Law Project/
Women in Prison Project Julia Yoshimoto

Julia Yoshimoto worked in the social services field for six years before attending law school. She worked primarily with low-income clients in the areas of behavioral health and drug addiction. Through this work, she became acutely aware of the need for accessible, high-quality, and compassionate legal services for marginalized individuals. She is dedicated to using her law degree to increase access to justice by strengthening the bridge between legal services and social services.