Wilson Center adds leading legal, public health, and sentencing advocates to staff
The Wilson Center for Science and Justice has made two key hires in recent months. Yvette Garcia Missri, a leading legal and public health advocate for racial and social justice, joined the center as executive director in May. And in August, Ben Finholt came to the center as director of the Just Sentencing Project, an initiative focused on extreme sentencing and racial disparities in North Carolina that he previously directed at North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services.
Garcia Missri most recently served as the litigation counsel for the Center for Responsible Lending, where she used litigation strategies to combat abusive lending practices. There, she authored several amicus briefs in federal and state courts, represented organizational plaintiffs against federal agencies, and led national policy reform efforts to close the racial wealth gap.
She earlier served as an administrator for the Orange County Department on Aging, where she helped lead the county to become North Carolina’s first World Health Organization Age-Friendly County. She also led and implemented a county-level five-year strategic plan and created and managed multiple enduring programs to combat poverty and improve mental health outcomes for vulnerable older adults.
Garcia Missri has also worked as a gender-based violence legal services attorney in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., including at Merrimack Valley Legal Services, the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, and the Office of the Attorney General for D.C. She received her JD from Boston College Law School, her MPH in Health Behavior from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, and her BA in Philosophy from George Washington University.
“Yvette brings to us a depth of litigation experience, a public health background, and policy and regulatory experience that will add so much to the center,” said Wilson Center Director Brandon Garrett, the L. Neil Williams, Jr., Professor of Law.
“With the center’s incredible body of work and strong national momentum for meaningful change, the center is ready for its next phase of growth,” said Garcia Missri. “And I am excited to help lead the center as we take on bold and innovative efforts to improve criminal legal and behavioral health outcomes for all people.”
The move of the Just Sentencing Project to the center under Finholt’s leadership is part of this effort. At Duke, Finholt is addressing extreme sentencing and racial disparities in North Carolina through policy, the courts, and executive clemency, with the goal of developing a model that can be exported nationally. He is working with Wilson Center researchers and the Governor’s Task Force on Racial Equity in Criminal Justice to compile a comprehensive database of North Carolina felony charging, conviction, and sentencing. He is also partnering with district attorneys’ offices, public defenders’ offices, the state General Assembly, the Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission, and the Juvenile Sentencing Review Board to promote fair and equitable sentencing and best practices related to sentencing review.
“Ben’s holistic approach to addressing excessive sentencing through policy, education, and the courts is a perfect fit for the Wilson Center,” said Garcia Missri. “Ben’s work and expertise will greatly expand the center’s reach and impact and provide many opportunities for students to do meaningful work and make a real difference in our local community.”
Finholt is a graduate of Williams College and the University of Iowa College of Law. He taught math in New England for six years before attending law school, after which he worked in education law before joining N.C. Prisoner Legal Services as a staff attorney in 2012 and becoming director of the Just Sentencing Project in July 2019.
“I couldn’t be more excited to join the Wilson Center for Science and Justice and the Duke Law faculty to continue the Just Sentencing Project,” Finholt said. “I am forever grateful to my former colleagues at North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, who made it possible for me to pursue this work.”