Q&A: Executive Director Sara Jones on Making the Law School IPMN’s Home
When the Innocence Project of Minnesota moved to Mondale Hall on April 1, it was something of a homecoming for IPMN executive director Sara Jones ’88, the second of three generations of Minnesota Law alums. Her father, C. Paul Jones ’50, served as Minnesota’s founding State Public Defender for 25 years and had his main office at the Law School. Her nephew, Curtis Wells, is a member of the Class of ’09. Topping it all off, Jones worked for eight years in the Law School’s Advancement Office.
Jones recently took a few minutes out from the rigors of a hectic move to share some of IPMN’s plans and to discuss the happy synergies she sees with Minnesota Law now serving as IPMN’s home base.
What drew you to Minnesota Law as a new home for the IPMN?
It is a convergence of a number of things. We are in a growth mode, and anticipating the addition of two staff attorneys this year, which will increase our ability to help innocent people. We are growing our organizational reach by now serving North and South Dakota as well as Minnesota, and we are looking at what other kinds of opportunities we can get involved with beyond direct representation of our clients and policy work in Minnesota. And, in talking with the Dean and others at the Law School, it sounds like there is growing interest in our work and public service generally among the students. We will continue working with other law schools as well, but really wanted to have a home base at the University of Minnesota Law School because of its reputation for excellence in criminal law and criminal justice work.
Could you talk a little about your staff and some of the ties there to Minnesota Law?
We have three full-time staff members and a part time volunteer staff attorney. We also have a new full-time staff attorney joining us in April. All of us on staff who are lawyers are Minnesota Law graduates. Many of the lawyers on our board also are Minnesota Law alumni.
What are the benefits to IPMN in being on site here?
It will give us increased opportunities to connect with students in a variety of ways. We are considering expanding into some empirical and perhaps some academic research, which we could do in conjunction with law students, faculty, and the greater University. We often get into issues involving forensic science, social science, and public policy, and the University just has a whole lot of faculty members and students who may well be interested in getting involved in our mission.
What advantages does your presence here afford Minnesota Law students?
There will be easier opportunities for volunteering. We are also considering bringing on some part-time student workers going forward. In addition, students will have the ability to consult with us if they are working on a research project or a journal article or something that ties in with our mission. They will have expertise right there to tap into. We are a resource for expertise in post-conviction work and criminal justice in general. So to have that available to the students as another resource will be a very positive thing. We will work on bringing speakers in whom the students will have access to and possible may host conferences. We are already talking about bringing in a speaker in collaboration with the Robina Institute and several student organizations, but have not set a time for that yet.
What kind of reception have you gotten from the faculty?
Fantastic! Since I worked at the Law School for eight years and went to the Law School, I know a lot of the faculty, and I think the energy is really positive. And I believe Dean Jenkins and Assistant Dean Jon McClanahan Lee are particularly interested in us adding a substantive presence in the criminal justice area of the Law School, too. … There is just some natural crossover. Perry Moriearty co-directs the Child Advocacy & Juvenile Justice Clinic, and we have a relationship with her. And JaneAnne Murray has done some work that is consistent with our mission.
What types of things are you currently working on?
With support from a major catalyst grant we received last fall from the Lakeshore Foundation, we’re actively building relationships, systems, and staffing to become a truly regional innocence organization serving North and South Dakota in addition to Minnesota. Our primary focus is direct representation of clients in post-conviction matters, where they have a claim of actual innocence. In any given year, we get about 300 inquiries about our services, and about 180 of those become official written requests to look at their cases. We screen and investigate the requests, looking for cases that fit our criteria for representation. Right now, we have seven cases in litigation. Post-conviction innocence cases can take years and years of work to resolve. We also are leading the effort on two promising pieces of legislation in Minnesota this session. One fixes some problems with the statute we got passed in 2014, providing compensation for people who have been released from prison on grounds consistent with actual innocence. The other addresses eyewitness identification best practices for law enforcement.
Anything else you would like to share with the Minnesota Law community?
It’s important to note that our work is non-partisan, with support from an incredibly broad-based constituency. Our work also is collaborative within the justice system and legal community. We work with and provide a lot of education and training to the courts, prosecutors, defenders, and law enforcement. We have our hands in a lot of that because, not only do we want innocent people freed, we also want to prevent innocent people from being wrongfully accused and incarcerated in the future. That’s something we all should be able to get behind.
Is there an open house in the offing sometime after everything is out of the boxes?
We are hoping to have an informal open house while the students are still on campus and not in the throes of finals.