Healing Justice, a nonprofit organization founded in Chapel Hill and now headquartered in Washington, D.C., works to promote healing and recovery for those harmed by wrongful convictions. The organization provides direct support services like counseling, and it offers retreats to bring together those affected by wrongful convictions to address their harm and grief.
The organization’s president and founder Jennifer Thompson is a survivor of a crime that resulted in a wrongful conviction, she discusses her story in her book, "Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption." After years of advocating for victims of wrongful convictions, Thompson founded Healing Justice in 2015 to address the needs of those harmed by failures of the criminal justice system.
The cornerstone program of the organization is the Healing Justice Retreats, which are held several times per year at the Roslyn Retreat Center in Richmond, Va. The retreats focus on unpacking the harm done by a wrongful conviction through art projects, reflections and community-building exercises designed to foster a sense of community and collective resilience among attendees.
Thompson said the retreats are successful because they are led and facilitated by members of the organization who have been personally affected by wrongful convictions.
“What’s unique about us is that everything we do, all of our projects and all of our programs, are led by people with lived experiences," she said. "Unless you’ve lived what we’ve lived through, you really can’t understand what we need."
Frank Baumgartner, a Richard J. Richardson Distinguished professor of political science at UNC, serves as treasurer on the organization’s Board of Directors. Baumgartner said the Healing Justice Retreats facilitate a sense of community among all types of people affected by a wrongful conviction.
“One of the things about these catastrophes is that they're still rare enough that people might not know that people can relate to it,” Baumgartner said. “By bringing people together for the weekend, they get to expand their family and support system with people that really get it, because most people just don’t get it.”
This semester, Baumgartner’s POLI 203 class: Race, Innocence and the End of the Death Penalty, explores the declining use of the death penalty in states across the country. The class is accompanied by an eight-part, distinguished speakers series that examines race in the criminal justice system, the death penalty and wrongful convictions.
Last Monday, Executive Director of Healing Justice Katie Monroe spoke at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center about her work with the organization alongside Penny Beerntsen, a survivor of an attack whose case resulted in a wrongful conviction. In her speech, Monroe explained the work that Healing Justice does and discussed the widespread harmful effects that a wrongful conviction can have.