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The Balanced Justice Project at FIU Law

The Balanced Justice Project

Balancing the interests of people who have experienced crime, people who have perpetrated crime and the wider community to achieve justice.

Balanced Justice is an initiative developed out of the Florida Center for Capital Representation and the Juvenile Resentencing and Review Project at FIU College of Law.  It is a non-profit operating via FIU Foundation and a legal aid instrument within FIU’s Law Clinic.

Cross-disciplinary Approach to Achieve Justice

BJP brings together students, practitioners, and scholars to incorporate cross-disciplinary perspectives to provide a holistic approach to the criminal justice system. Together, BJP provides cutting-edge, legal, and investigative assistance, empirical research, trainings, and educational programs designed to achieve justice and reduce crime.

Restorative Justice and Mitigation

BJP seeks to improve the criminal justice system by infusing it with creative strategies and additional tools under-utilized today, such as restorative justice and mitigation.  Restorative justice practices focus on how best to repair the harm resulting from crime by greater victim engagement, individual accountability, and community involvement.  For example, victim-offender/family dialogues, reparative boards, community courts and truth/reconciliation commissions.  Social science studies reveal that, when implemented appropriately, a reduction in crime, especially for serious violent offenses, at a lesser cost than the current administratively complex, adversarial system, and victims and offenders report a greater sense of justice.

Mitigation is any factor that could impact a person’s culpability and/or the proportionality of any sentence.  It places the crime and individuals involved into a social context via a life history investigation.  It not only provides critical information to the decision-making by the state attorney, judge, and jurors, but also can provide an explanation to the victim and community for the crime. When collected and presented properly, whether formally before the court or informally in dialogues between the key players, mitigation evidence tells the story of the offender and what led to the commission of the crime.

We are the legal storytellers that use restorative justice and mitigation as our medium.  Our goal is to shine light on the people behind the cases, giving both the offender and the victim their chance to be at the center of the stage.

Despite increasing evidence that restorative justice and mitigation can ameliorate  serious deficiencies in the current criminal justice system (Florida is one of the most punitive states in the country with its treatment of juveniles as adults, its high death penalty use and incarceration rate that far exceeds the national average), there are insufficient resources and programs to adequately prepare the future generations and help current professionals in the field.

Our Services and Priorities

The BJP addresses this these deficiencies through its legal assistance, research, training, and education programs.  In addition to assistance on litigation strategy, plea negotiations, jury selection and securing pro bono lawyers, it provides direct services as mitigation specialists and assists with victim-outreach .  While our services include assistance on the question of guilt, it prioritizes sentencing issues in cases involving juveniles charged as adults, foreign nationals, and the most severe of penalties including the death penalty.  BJP aims to identify appropriate cases for restorative justice practices and expand its current research to monitor its long-term benefits.  Finally, BJP ensures that the future generations will benefit from real-life experience via experiential learning which will benefit the community by greater engagement and an improved criminal justice system.

Florida Center for Capital Representation at FIU Law

Florida Center for Capital Representation (FCCR) at Florida International University College of Law was founded in 2014 to support defense attorneys representing defendants facing the death penalty in Florida. To that end, FCCR provides free case-consultation and litigation-support services, as well as capital-litigation training programs, to defense attorneys and mitigation specialists across the State. With a strong emphasis on developing mitigation to obtain death-penalty waivers and pleas, FCCR seeks to assist capital defense teams in resolving cases short of a death sentence.

For further information, please email Hannah Gorman.

Foreign Nationals and International Investigation Project

Criminal cases involving a foreign national client or international dimension bring about additional complexities in ensuring effective legal representation.   Aside from the obvious language barriers and unfamiliarity with the local legal system, foreign nationals have a heightened risk of vulnerability and discrimination.  With the racial bias that exists in the type of cases the project works on the issue of race and racism needs to be thoroughly addressed and investigated. Issues of race and racism are prevalent in all cases and often more so in the cases of foreign nationals. 

In addition, there are extensive cultural factors that must be considered in order to place the crime in context and present mitigation to secure an appropriate sentence.  For example, differences in family and community structures, attitudes to substance misuse, authority, mental illness as well as behaviors such a body language, beliefs in witchcraft or religion. 

It is critical to criminal defense work to understand the lives of our clients and the culture that shapes those lives.  Culture should feature heavily in life history investigation in capital cases, but outside of capital cases it is often difficult to understand clients and the causes of their involvement in criminal acts without understanding the cultural context and the cultural pathways that may have led to their involvement.

Every client has culture of course but some is more accessible than others.  Sometimes, it can even be a challenge locating the correct documentation to correctly identify a foreign national client and establish/confirm nationality.  Some nationality laws are so broad it is not always immediately apparent and additional investigation is required: at least three generations back in respect of the client and their family.

The Foreign National and International Investigation Project is a partnership between the Balanced Justice Project at FIU Law and  255 Investigation.  It provides legal and investigative assistance to foreign nationals and their legal teams in the US as well as global jurisdictions.  The project assists with navigating the complexities of international human rights law and advising on how best to utilize international institutions.  For example, the Vienna Convention for Consular Relations and International Prisoner Transfer Treaties.  The project engages consular staff in the US and overseas, offices in different countries, local community groups and community representatives, local and international media.

The project arms criminal practitioners with, and teaches students, the analytical skills to understand culture better in combination with the essential baseline skills to conduct frontline mitigation work to a high standard.  We navigate the challenging task of international record collection and in-field investigation.  We also undertake government outreach and provide advice/training in respect of consular assistance best practices. 

This project breaks new ground and will take its participants to the core of investigation work on a global scale, with global impact. It will foster understanding of the many elements of investigation and advocacy at an international level and take them deep into communities, to conduct casework, shape life-saving narratives for the clients and shape life-saving law.

For more information, please contact Hannah Gorman and Chris Chang.

Direct File and Youthful Offender Project

The United States Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama (2012) that children may not be sentenced to life without parole for homicide without taking in consideration the unique characteristics of youth. In 2014, Florida lawmakers passed legislation requiring individualized sentencing hearings for juveniles who are facing life in prison. The legislation also provides for eventual judicial review of the sentence in lieu of parole. In 2015, Florida Supreme Court decided in Falcon v. State that Miller must be retroactively applied, paving the way for hundreds of inmates who were juveniles at the time of their offenses have a chance at release.

The Florida Resentencing and Review Project at the FIU College of Law was created with the goal of ensuring that each juvenile in the State of Florida who is either already serving or subject to adult sanctions receives a robust and comprehensive defense. The focus of the Project is to provide consultation and training for attorneys who are representing juveniles in the adult system, collect data, and advise on policy and legislation affecting juveniles who are subject to prosecution as adults.

More recently, the focus has changed from resentencings to providing support to the lawyers who are representing children who have been recently direct filed or indicted. The new direction is reflected in the name change to the Direct File and Youthful Offender Project.

Contact Roseanne Eckert, the Coordinating Attorney, at Reckert@fiu.edu for more information.

Prosecution Innocence Project

The Prosecution Innocence Project is a non-litigation criminal investigative externship placement in partnership with the Conviction Integrity Review Unit of the State Attorney’s Office for the Fourth Judicial Circuit of Florida (Duval County). Students have the opportunity to participate in a thorough and actual review of the of the prosecution file, including arrest and booking reports, general offense reports, supplemental reports, witness statements, law enforcement interviews, jail calls, 911 calls, lab reports, depositions, photographs and any other items of note. Students will develop an understanding of the many components of criminal investigation, trial and post-conviction proceedings.  Students will also hone research and writing skills, as they write legal memoranda on a variety of subjects including competency of counsel, forensic science, Brady/Giglio evidence, legalities of police investigations, post-conviction remedies and the intricacies of a criminal trial.  The placement is in Miami and does not require status as a certified legal intern (CLI).  For more information, please contact Karen Gottlieb.

Staff

Hannah Gorman, Director, The Balanced Justice Project and Florida Center for Capital Representation

Stephen K. Harper, Founding Director, Florida Center for Capital Representation and Juvenile Resentencing and Review Project

Roseanne Eckert, Co-ordinating Attorney, Direct File and Youthful Offender Project

Eric R. Carpenter, Affiliated Scholar, Balanced Justice Project

Karen Gottlieb, Adjunct Professor, Prosecutor Innocence Project, Former Co-Director of Florida Center for Capital Representation

Deborah Goldfarb, Affiliated Faculty, Legal Psychology

Kevin Lothridge, Affiliated Faculty, Global Forensic and Justice Center

Research

The Impact of Hurst on Florida’s Death Row

In January 2016, Florida’s capital sentencing statute was declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in Hurst v. Florida.   Since this time the Florida Supreme Court has made a number of subsequent decisions that determined the provisions of the new statute particularly the requirement of jury unanimity and the law surrounding the retroactive application of those already under a sentence of death (Hurst v. State, Perry v. State, Mullens v. State, Asay v. State, Mosley v. State, Silva v. State, Poole v. State).  In other words, what would happen to those who were sentenced under the old, now unconstitutional, scheme? 

The Florida Center for Capital Representation reviewed the appeals of those on death row as well as any new proceedings that followed with a view to providing critical information on the impact of Hurst.  The empirical research continues but, as of June 2020, the Center’s analysis indicated that 145 people (of a potential 151) obtained new penalty phase trials on the basis of Hurst relief.   One hundred remain pending in a pre-trial posture with eight being resentenced to death and 37 to Life without the possibility of parole.  Significantly, 75% of those on Florida’s death row at the time of Hurst were sentenced to death on the recommendation of a less than unanimous jury but only 40% will receive relief.  In other words, over a third of death row, despite having been sentenced to death on a majority jury recommendation held unconstitutional under Hurst, will not receive relief like the rest. 

 For more information, please see the article here.  In addition, the Florida Center for Capital Representation collaborated with the Death Penalty Information Center to provide a summary of Hurst and its ongoing impact available via DPIC’s website.

Geographical Variances in the Use of the Death Penalty Across Florida

The Florida Center for Capital Representation’s research on first degree murders revealed a geographical variance of the application of the death penalty across the State.  Please find full article here.

Jury Unanimity in Death Sentences

The Florida Center for Capital Representation commissioned Public Policy Polling to conduct a survey of Florida Registered Voters during the first week of February 2016. The objective was to ascertain public sentiment regarding the necessity of unanimous jury decision prior to someone being sentenced to death. The findings of the survey indicate that the majority of the community strongly supports requiring juries in death penalty cases to make a unanimous decision before deciding to sentence a person to death.  The survey also asked questions regarding public support for the death penalty.  Read the result of the survey here.

Public Preference for Life over Death

In the 2016, the survey commissioned by the Florida Center for Capital Representation demonstrated that the majority of the public who were asked about their views regarding the punishment for people convicted of murder prefer a life over death sentence, with a small minority electing life  with the possibility of parole. Read the results of the survey here.

Giving


The Balanced Justice Project at FIU Law relies on donations and foundation grants to carry out its work.

 

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