By Jeffrey L. Boney, NNPA Newswire Political Analyst
Imagine spending nearly two decades in prison for a crime you never committed.
Even worse, imagine spending 12 of those years behind bars on death row.
That is the story of former Texas death row inmate Anthony Graves, whose case garnered international attention after he was wrongfully convicted of multiple homicides in 1992. Graves was sentenced to the death penalty.
Graves’ sentence was overturned in 2006. Then, after having to deal with countless legal loopholes and roadblocks, he was forced to fight and wait another four years in order to be fully exonerated and released from prison in 2010 after 18 ½ long years.
Sadly, stories of false imprisonment and wrongful conviction have impacted countless African Americans for decades — from having to deal with the controversial and inhumane convict-leasing system, to flawed public policy that disproportionately impacts African Americans.
Graves’ case serves as but one example of the complex nuances that make up the America’s controversial criminal justice system.
In 2017, Netflix released a documentary entitled “Time: The Kalief Browder Story.” The film chronicles the tragic case of Kalief Browder, a young Black teenager who spent three years of his young life in pre-trial detention and solitary confinement on New York’s Riker’s Island, without ever being convicted of a crime.
Despite denying the charges, Browder was held because he was on probation for a prior incident. On top of that, because his parents could not afford the money for bail to get him out of jail. Half of Broder’s time in jail was spent in solitary confinement, until 2013 when he was released and all charges against him were dismissed.
Two years after being released, at the age of 22, Browder committed suicide outside of his mother’s home, which led to calls for criminal justice reform in New York.
Stories and incidents like these have prompted activists from across the globe to focus on ways to help bring about comprehensive and effective criminal justice reform in the United States, which is why Graves has chosen to work with the ACLU of Texas and Texas Southern University’s Urban Research and Resource Center (TSUURRC) to launch the Anthony Graves Smart Justice Speaker’s Bureau. Graves said this program was much needed across the country.
“I travel all across the country sharing my story and no matter where I go, I hear story after story about someone who has been impacted by the criminal justice system, whether it was them or someone close to them,” said Graves. “I felt like I had to do something to give these people a voice to share their stories, which I strongly believe will empower them to help bring about changes in the criminal justice system in America.”
The Anthony Graves Smart Justice Speakers Bureau is the only program of its kind in the nation. The program works with qualified persons to help reduce recidivism and to encourage entrepreneurship and academic development through a 12-week training program, that is taught on the Texas Southern University (TSU) campus.
The Anthony Graves Smart Justice Speakers Bureau allows formerly incarcerated people to be trained in professional public speaking and to serve as effective ambassadors related to criminal justice issues.
The program utilizes highly credentialed and experienced trainers who follow approved curriculum specific to the topic areas of criminal justice reform. The class sizes range from 5 to 10 students who are trained and prepared for speaking engagements around the country.
Students who successfully complete the program receive a certificate of achievement certifying their skills.
Selection for training is competitive. Applicants submit a 10-minute video for consideration and/or participate in a phone interview. Afterwards, candidates are then invited to a face-to-face interview.
Speakers are trained to be effective agents of change at the local, state and national levels. Speakers’ skills and time are highly valued. Trained speakers are fairly compensated consistent with speaking fees for other public policy professional engagements.
The TSU Urban Research and Resource Center (TSUURRC) chose to partner with the ACLU of Texas with a goal to help reduce mass incarceration by 50 percent. They hope to do this through researching the key drivers of incarceration and formulating policies aimed at impacting those drivers in a way that achieves the goal.
“This program trains the people who will be most influential in telling the real stories and showing the real faces of the criminal justice system,” said Marcia Johnson, TSU law professor and director of the TSU Urban Research and Resource Center. “The program helps to humanize the people within the system instead of seeing them as numbers. It ensures that we know that these are people not to be forgotten but helped to achieve goals that benefit themselves, their families and society.”
TSU students and faculty conduct research on the issue of criminal justice reform in order to educate communities and policy makers on issues like bail reform, sentencing reform and racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
“When they tell their compelling stories, policy makers get to see the positive differences they could make,” Johnson added. “We do not have the luxury of marginalizing our fellow citizens. We must act humanely if we want to move our nation forward together.”
The Anthony Graves Smart Justice Speakers Bureau program is being administered by TSU journalism professor Serbino Sandifer-Walker, who developed the curriculum for the program.
The program focuses on a range of communication skills and training, which include:
- Effective storytelling and general techniques for effective communication
- Media training and how to effectively communicate with the news media and handle interviews in a variety of different formats
- Delivery of impactful testimony and how to communicate before legislative bodies
- How to communicate to the legal profession and engage with private attorneys, public defenders and the District Attorney’s offices
- Public engagement and generating public support for criminal justice reform by speaking before a general audience
The first seven participants of the Anthony Graves Smart Justice Speakers Bureau recently graduated from the inaugural program and have begun practicing what they have learned by participating in speaking engagements around the country, with one of the first speaking opportunities taking place during the Texas Legislative Session this month.
Having paid their debt to society, previously incarcerated people need and deserve the opportunity to integrate back into civilian life and become positive contributors to society. This program will help these individuals hone and perfect their communication skills, thereby maximizing the impact of their personal testimonies and experiences can have on fostering change in the criminal justice system.
For more information on the Anthony Graves Smart Justice Speakers Bureau, please visit http://urrc.tsu.edu/areas-of-focus/criminal-justice-reform/tsu-anthony-graves-smart-justice-speakers-bureau/.