Jon Eldan runs the only nonprofit dedicated to helping exonerees throughout the country — out of his Lower Rockridge home.
(page 3 of 3)
Exonerees are vulnerable in different ways than other formerly incarcerated individuals, Eldan said. That’s because exonerees don’t learn about transitional services due to the fact that they don’t go through a formal release process or parole. “This is not an argument for why they should have been released on parole — of course they should have been released — but the mechanism is not designed to guide these people to these services,” Eldan said.
While most people assume that exoneration work is done by those in the Innocence Network — which includes 69 standalone organizations worldwide — only about 20 percent of exoneration cases are handled by such groups, according to the data from the National Registry of Exonerations. The rest are the work of individual lawyers and advocates. And neither the individual attorneys nor the majority of innocence organizations have the resources or skills to provide reliable re-entry support.
(However, a new Oakland-based organization, Exonerated Nation, founded by exoneree Obie Anthony, aims to help exonerees with jobs, temporary housing, and other immediate needs. So far, Exonerated Nation has assisted California exonerees, but Anthony said he plans to expand his organization. Anthony is also the namesake of Obie’s Law, which California enacted in 2015 and mandates transitional services for exonerees. He said he was inspired to create the legislation because of the lack of assistance he received after his release. “My freedom and my exoneration gave me power,” he said.)
“One of the greatest needs we have is how to help exonerees when they’re out, because we can’t do that when we do the work to exonerate them,” Starr said, explaining why she refers her clients to Eldan. “He doesn’t just do a small aspect of the work, and he takes on some of the things that are most important and most tedious and difficult to take on.”
More recently, Eldan has recruited practitioners of a therapy known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, which has shown to be effective for those with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, to provide free or low-cost therapy to exonerees. The treatment involves having the person perform eye movements that mimic those in REM sleep to help him or her reprocess traumatic experiences.
One exoneree from Texas who is currently receiving such treatment called Eldan to tell him how it was going. “Today was my fifth session with the counselor, and, man, it was probably one of the best things I could’ve done,” the man said.
The man continued to say that he had suspected he was suffering from PTSD but that his counselor confirmed it. “I know I’ll never be able to just get rid of it altogether, but learning how to live with it,” the man said. (The magazine agreed not to reveal his identity because the diagnosis could impact a pending legal case.) “She’s really helped me with the therapy that she’s doing to understand how to begin that process. So, I thank you for that.”
“I’m so, so glad, and this is fantastic, fantastic news, and I’m really, really glad that it’s been helpful to you and that you’re feeling better,” Eldan responded, before switching to the topic of his legal case.
Listening to exonerees tell their stories, it’s hard not to grow indignant. But few people decide to do something about it. What drove Eldan to do such work?
The answer lies in his upbringing. Eldan grew up in Culver City, just west of Los Angeles. His mom served as a planning commissioner and his stepfather was the assistant city manager. This shaped his view of government.
“I really got the sense that the government is available to us,” said Eldan, who attended public schools. “There was a feeling like we pay for this, this is the government acting in our name.”
This collective sense of ownerships carried over to his work with exonerees and emboldened him to start After Innocence. “This is not the criminal justice system, it’s our criminal justice system,” he said. “I can really get in there ... and be a really zealous advocate for these people who’ve really been through a particular kind of hell and are still going through it in a lot of ways. I think that’s what drives it.”
While Eldan is the sole employee of After Innocence, he does not work alone. He has volunteers, including law students from UC Berkeley and Stanford, and recruits lawyers around the country. But he does most of the on-the-ground work himself.
Eldan received startup support from several foundations and a few dozen individual donors. This year, he plans to expand his fundraising to allow him to hire additional staff in order to double the number of exonerees he’s in contact with over the next two years. “The goal is to reach every exoneree in the country,” Eldan said.
Eldan also plans on increasing his work on policy reform by promoting laws in several states that will provide exonerees with meaningful compensation and re-entry services. California currently provides exonerees with $50,000 for every year they’re incarcerated but only after they’ve proved their actual innocence. People who merely had their convictions overturned must go before the California Victim Compensation Board and prove their innocence in order to be compensated — essentially, by demonstrating that the crime he or she was charged with wasn’t committed or, if it was, wasn’t committed by him or her.
Eldan said he wants to see California’s compensation improved in several ways, including by providing a separate attorneys’ fee award to successful claimants so that exonerees don’t end up having to pay a portion of their compensation to their lawyers, and by providing successful claimants with an official certificate of innocence that would attest to their wrongful conviction. “Think about what that would do if that person were applying for a job or applying for an apartment,” he said.
Eldan said these reform efforts are largely informed by the conversations he has had with exonerees. And it’s this aspect of the work that inspires him most. “I get to talk to these people all day long,” said Eldan. “It is both deeply troubling, saddening, sometimes quite difficult but in most instances extraordinarily rewarding to talk to them, to be able to help them, to hear their stories. ‘Inspiring’ is a cliché, but anyone who would be sitting here listening in on these calls would be inspired. … It’s wonderful, wonderful work.”
And it doesn’t appear that the work will be letting up anytime soon.
While the number of exonerees released through DNA has plateaued — they account for about 20 percent of exonerations since 1989, according to the registry — the number of exonerations from conviction integrity units in prosecutors’ offices is increasing, according to Gross, co-founder of the National Registry of Exonerations.
And Starr of the Northern California Innocence Project said she thinks there will be more exonerations in the future. “The more we understand how forensic science has been misused, the more we’re going to find cases that should be reversed because of that,” she said, adding that the same goes for medical testimony.
Gross believes that of the millions of convictions in this country every year, perhaps around 1 percent could be errors. “Ten thousand has got to be a low estimate,” he said, “and that’s scary.” He added that most will probably never be identified, because they’re not mistakes anyone could ever prove.
All the more reason why we’ll need people like Eldan. Ultimately, he hopes his work will help society change its view of incarcerated people and the criminal justice system. He sees his work in line with criminal justice reform — “and not just for the nice innocent ones.”
“Innocence is a great argument for being more open to understanding errors, complexities, and subtleties in our system and not simply brand people as guilty, convicted, and bad, both inside and after they get out, which is what we’ve done,” said Eldan.
Acknowledging exonerees, he said, means acknowledging that there are more innocent people in prison. “And what does that do to your idea about the system?” he said. “Does it make you feel ashamed? I get that, but maybe it will also get people to say, ‘Yeah, we should build that into the way we think about the world.’”
And that includes how we treat those who’ve borne the burden of our errors. “We should get together and decide what is fair,” said Eldan, “and as a baseline make that available to all of them.”