The passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg has turned up the heat in our national conversation about justice for all in America. The tension and debate surrounding the nomination process, from its timing to the ultimate makeup of our highest court, reveals that there is a danger in justice being seen as the function of a sole entity or institution, rather than something society pursues collaboratively. It is time for all of us to work for equal justice under the law in our personal lives and in our professional careers.
Justice Ginsburg agreed. Living her life by the creed from the book of Deuteronomy that hung on the wall of her Supreme Court chamber: “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” she wrote the majority opinion in several cases that were instrumental to the cause of criminal justice reform over the course of her career.
Kimbrough v. United States gave discretion to district judges to impose sentences outside the vagaries of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for crack cocaine. That decision went far to correct the inequities in the guidelines that resulted in significant racial disparities during sentencing. Timbs v. Indiana was another important opinion authored by Justice Ginsburg, which upheld the Fourteenth Amendment and ruled against imposing excessive and disproportionate fines by the states.
These decisions, and others like them, left our system of justice in a better place. But there is more work to do. Of the more than 7,000 cases a year that the Court is asked to review, it hears only 100 to 150. It’s impossible for the Supreme Court to grant every petition, leaving thousands of people stuck with whatever decision they were seeking to remedy. Many thousands more that never approach the court end up with unjust results from their encounters with the criminal justice system, whether from sentencing inconsistencies in the law like those Kimbrough corrected, incompetent representation, lack of understanding of their options, bias, wrongful convictions, a criminal record impeding post-rehabilitation prosperity, or other circumstances as arbitrary as the time of day.
These people need as much help as they can get, but the resources and organizations to help them are greatly outpaced by the immensity of the need. The Midwest Innocence Project, for example, receives hundreds of requests for case review that need to be screened before any additional steps can be taken. Just one case screening can take approximately 100 hours and up to a year to complete. Currently, according to intake analyst Brody Sabor, there are 584 cases waiting for screening.
Corporations can always contribute financially to nonprofit organizations such as the Midwest Innocence Project that pursue justice for individual cases. But what if companies could do even more for the cause of criminal justice reform by donating time and expertise?
Koch Industries has been testing a model in which the legal expertise we require as part of doing business is put into service for more than 140 organizations making a difference in their communities — for free. These organizations receive organizational and financial support from the Stand Together Foundation, but with this model, they also receive pro bono legal services, including help with trademark licensing, employment and labor, building permits, and more. Koch support includes drafting and filing motions, appearing in court, case screening, training, and counsel for those seeking assistance in navigating the system.
Since implementing the program in-house in 2018, our work has expanded to include the law firms we engage, including Barnes & Thornburg, who recently committed 10,000 pro bono hours over the next three years to help this community of nonprofit organizations with their crucial work.
One such case belonged to Gwen Boyd-Willis, who was sentenced to four months in a women’s detention center for a first-time, non-violent offense. Having paid her debt to society and determined to follow a new path upon release, Gwen returned to school, earning a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees. But she soon discovered what many in similar situations find out — that her debt was not truly paid, as her past criminal record created seemingly insurmountable barriers to obtaining meaningful employment. She applied for help from one of our nonprofit organization partners, the Georgia Justice Project, and was connected to Michael Davis, a lawyer with Georgia-Pacific and participant in our pro-bono initiative.
A year and a half later, and through the diligent efforts of Mr. Davis, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles granted Gwen’s pardon. “When I received that letter, I cried for about 30 minutes,” Gwen says. “I'm glad I don't have it hanging over my head anymore because I missed out on a lot of great jobs.”
Companies can be a force for good beyond simply donating money. Koch will continue this pro bono work and hopes that other companies will replicate this model in pursuit of a more just society for all. Just give us a call, and we’ll help get the ball rolling.
Ray Geoffroy is vice president and general counsel of Koch Industries.