Wilson Center for Science and Justice tackles criminal justice reform with $5 million grant

The grant helps advance data driven research, education, and policy efforts.

A $5 million grant from Duke University alumnus Derek Wilson, through The Wilson Foundation, is bolstering legal and scientific data-driven research at Duke Law School that specifically addresses criminal justice reform.

Wilson Center Logo

The grant provides significant funding for Duke Law’s Center for Science and Justice to advance criminal justice research, education, and policy. In recognition of the grant, the center — which launched in September 2019 — has been renamed the Wilson Center for Science and Justice.

Derek Wilson photo
Derek Wilson

“The Wilson Center for Science and Justice is very well positioned to translate science-based legal solutions into meaningful change to our nation’s criminal justice system,” said Duke University President Vincent E. Price in announcing the grant on Sept. 14. “I am grateful to The Wilson Foundation for this opportunity to engage in the important work of ensuring all citizens are treated equitably under the law.”

The center brings together students, faculty, and staff across the university applying their expertise in law, medicine, public policy, and arts and sciences as a unique lens for criminal justice research. Together, their interdisciplinary collaborations are delivering impactful work to study, expose, and remedy structural inequities in the criminal system.

“The Wilsons’ generous gift has made it possible for Duke to build a long-term presence as a national leader in reform of our criminal system, at a time of increased attention to racial disparities and when calls for improvements are urgent,” said Brandon Garrett, the L. Neil Williams Jr. Professor of Law and faculty director of the center. “We are grateful for their deep commitment to equality of opportunity for all and eliminating barriers to prosperity. Unfortunately, for too long the criminal system has operated as one of those barriers.”

Brandon Garrett

Said Derek Wilson: “When injustices hold people back, our entire country suffers. The current criminal system disproportionately harms minority communities. We saw an opportunity to do our part, through Brandon Garrett’s vision and Duke Law’s commitment for the center, to bring students and faculty together to work to reform the criminal system.” Wilson, who earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Duke in 1986 and an M.B.A. from The Fuqua School of Business in 1990, is a trustee for The Wilson Foundation.

“When injustices hold people back, our entire country suffers. The current criminal system disproportionately harms minority communities.

Derek Wilson

Funds from the grant will expand the center’s work over the next six years in three signature areas: accuracy of evidence in criminal cases, the role of equity in criminal outcomes, and the mental and behavioral health treatment needs of people in the justice system. Highlights of recent work from the center include:

  • Accuracy: The center does a range of work on preventing wrongful convictions. Recent studies have examined how jurors evaluate forensic evidence. Garrett helped draft a set of principles regarding eyewitness, confession, informant, and forensic evidence for the American Law Institute and has created innovative and experiential courses, including a mock trial course, on forensic evidence. The Center for Statistics and Applications to Forensic Evidence, of which Duke is a member, was recently renewed for five years and will continue to support this work.
  • Equity: In March 2020, Garrett was appointed independent monitor of a landmark misdemeanor bail reform settlement in Harris County, Texas, which has the nation’s second-largest urban jail. The team’s initial report found that the new bail system, in its first six months, has reduced the number of people jailed on minor offenses with no accompanying increase in recidivism. Garrett’s team will continue to work to ensure compliance for the next seven years, with intense engagement among stakeholders in Texas.
  • Needs: A recent report uncovered the impact of fines and fees on one in 12 North Carolinians, a disproportionate number of whom are Black and Latino residents. The center is closely engaged with work to improve policing, including to minimize social harm and inequities. The center has also examined how COVID-19 has affected persons in the criminal system with behavioral health needs.

The center’s latest report probes the rationale for the sharp rise of life without parole sentences in recent decades as homicide rates have dropped. “Life Without Parole Sentencing in North Carolina” examines characteristics of the more than 1,627 cases in which the punishment was imposed from 1995 to 2017 in one of the states that imposes the largest numbers of these sentences. 

“With the support of the Wilson family, Duke Law is building the nation’s premier university-based center for study and, more importantly, action on criminal justice reform,” said Kerry Abrams, James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean of the School of Law and professor of law. “Thanks to their generosity, we will enhance our offerings in the classroom, expand the impact of our research, and continue to lead in educating students who seek to improve the criminal legal system.”

Derek Wilson chairs the new Wilson Center Advisory Board and also serves on the Nasher Museum’s Board of Advisors. He formerly served on the Duke Alumni Association Board and Alumni Admissions Advisory Council and as a co-chair of his class reunion, and he was a founding board member of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Fuqua. Derek and his wife, Christen, have donated works of art to the Nasher Museum, and their daughter, Trinity Walker Lewis, graduated from Duke in 2015. 

The Wilson family has extensive ties and a long history of philanthropy to Duke. Their generous support over many decades is evident in projects and programs around campus, including $5 million to support the construction of the Wilson Recreation Center on West Campus, $4 million to support Duke Athletics, and $1 million to fund an endowment for the Nasher Museum of Art and its collection. They also have been generous supporters of the Annual Funds for The Fuqua School of Business, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, and the Nasher Museum.

During a virtual event celebrating the center’s new name on Sept. 21, Garrett moderated a keynote roundtable featuring ProPublica and New York Times Magazine journalist Pamela Colloff and Joe Bryan, a Texas man who was paroled after 33 years in prison when doubts were raised about blood-spatter evidence presented at his trial. 

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Magazine Cover - Rebooting America

Winter 2021
Volume 40 | No. 1