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Why We Can't Just Throw Away The Key

Good to see Dwayne Provience, a Detroit man who spent eight years in prison for a murder he didn't commit, finally get to come home. (Head nod to my old teaching colleague Sandra Svoboda for some great reporting on this over at the Metro Times, BTW.)

And it feels even better to know that the Michigan Innocence Clinic, which aided Provience, is on the case on behalf other wrongfully convicted prisoners as well. The news about Provience comes on the heels of the clinic's first major victory, in which its teams helped exonerate DeShawn and Marvin Reed, Detroiters who spent nine years in prison for assault with intent to kill. Now, the clinic is presently looking into challenges to a handful of other possible wrongful rape and murder convictions -- and, chillingly, expects to discover even more over time:

"There's going to be a lot of business for years to come for us because there are a lot of people in prison in Michigan and some of them are innocent," says clinic co-director David Moran.

Damn.

Still, as much as I care that innocents are being set free, my concern and hope for the clinic's efforts go beyond that.

I care also because I hope that the clinic's work will help restore -- or even create -- faith among many in metro Detroit that the criminal-justice system, even when it breaks down for whatever reason, can be made to ultimately work right. (I can hear some of my people already laughing and going yeah right, but if we don't at least try to make change, what then?) And I care because Detroiters, even those about whom we scream "lock 'em up and throw away the key," have a right to expect that real justice be done before we take years from their lives that all the overturned convictions in the world can't give back.

Listen, you don't have to tell me or anyone else who has come of age in this city that violent criminals should be punished. We see the impact that violence has on our neighborhoods every single day, from the young bodies in our morgues to the fatherless children being raised by our widows. It's nearly impossible to find someone who has grown up in Detroit who hasn't, in some way, been touched by bloodshed.

But there's still a lot of work to be done to convince Detroiters that the same system that rightfully locks up real offenders won't also put innocent people's asses behind bars on a humble. Just as we know people locked up because they should be, we also know very well that there are people in jail who have no business being there (and, worse, that some of our fellow Americans could care less). We see it. We live it. And sometimes, we even die as a consequence of it -- because while someone who had nothing to do with a crime sits in jail, the real rapist/murderer/attacker is walking around the 'hood scott free.

Just as bad, this mistrust also often makes it tougher to catch the real criminals. We've all heard the stories about people in Detroit who refuse to cooperate with the cops because "snitching" is regarded as a no-no on the streets, even when you're not directly involved in the criminal activity. Well, when these same folks learn about jailhouse informants getting innocents sent up (as appears to have happened to Provience), this only reaffirms that erroneous belief that cooperating with law enforcement is dishonorable.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: poor people and other traditionally marginalized groups have a right to be wary of the criminal-justice system — but they are also the ones most under pressure from the sorts of violence that system is supposed to punish. And thus, they are the ones who often depend on that system the most. Do I really have to argue, then, that their buy-in is critical if we expect the system to function properly for us, irrespective of skin color or income level?

(And let me also give credit here to Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, who, despite her office's role in these wrongful convictions, has stood tall and worked with the clinic to see real, if belated, justice done. Compare her response to, say, the tomfoolery of these guys for a sense of why she's held in such regard in Detroit.)

We have already abandoned enough in Detroit, not the least of which is many people's belief in and respect for many institutions. It's good to know that organizations such as the Innocence Clinic are working toward restoration.

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