By Khalida Sarwari
One man brushed against it and the other studied it; now both are preparing to share what they’ve learned about injustice at Santa Clara County’s annual literature experience, Silicon Valley Reads.
The 2017 program features the works of Shaka Senghor and Adam Benforado. In his memoir Senghor talks about his 19-year incarceration, including time in solitary confinement, for shooting and killing a man in 1991. Benforado’s latest book weaves together historical examples, scientific studies and court cases to underline his thesis about how innate bias can tilt the scales of justice.
The books tie into the themes of this year’s Silicon Valley Reads: bias and social justice.
Now in its 15th year, the community program promotes reading and literacy with the aim of engaging people of all ages in dialogue about relevant themes in selected books at various events held throughout the county.
The goal of this year’s program is to get a conversation started locally around unconscious biases with the goal of raising awareness and sparking new ideas about how to reduce bias in the legal system, said Mary Ann Dewan, a program co-chair and deputy superintendent at the Santa Clara County Office of Education.
The program “really was designed as a way to bring our whole county together around a common topic, a common theme and create lots of opportunities for individuals to meet with others, to talk about the topics, to talk about the books and to have exposure to themes and conversations that sometimes are at a more national level and that locally we might not have an opportunity to participate in,” Dewan said.
Citing the region’s history of civic engagement, diversity and commitment to technological innovation, Benforado said Silicon Valley is an ideal place to have a conversation about inequity in the criminal justice system.
“I was really excited to hear from the folks out there,” he said. “It just seemed like a good match for me; it was really appealing to me to do this broader engagement over a period of weeks and appeal to different audiences. I think the really cool thing is the opportunity to talk to people who are interested in this; that’s what got me sold on this.”
In his New York Times nonfiction bestseller “Unfair: the New Science of Criminal Injustice,” Benforado argues biases are built into our legal structures and proposes ideas for using technology and scientific advancements to reform the legal system. To illustrate just how broken the system is, Benforado shares a story about a child who’s gunned down by a police officer and another about an investigator who ignores critical clues in a case. He cites a case where an innocent man confesses to a crime he did not commit and another where a jury acquitted a killer.
Whereas Senghor’s memoir brings a personal anecdote to the table, Benforado said he hopes his book will provide a scientific perspective on the subject matter.
“I think, from talking to (Senghor), we have reached very similar conclusions,” he said. “For me, it’s bringing an evidence-based approach. I’m really convinced that’s the way forward, so I think that’s what I bring to the debate, this scientific perspective to this very great problem we face in America.”
“Unfair” was selected, said Silicon Valley Reads coordinator Diane McNutt, because “it offers an informative and provocative approach to an important issue: that our scales of justice are unbalanced because of conscious and unconscious bias.”
“The author proposes that there are scientific and technology solutions to overcome this situation—an appropriate discussion for Silicon Valley,” she said.
Benforado, a legal scholar from Philadelphia who teaches criminal law at Drexel University, said he wrote “Unfair” because he wanted people to understand the hidden forces—psychological biases such as race, gender, appearance, education and economic status—that shape the behavior of judges, jurors, witnesses, lawyers and police officers and lead to criminal injustice and social inequality. For example, he argues that people with certain facial features receive longer sentences and that judges are far more likely to grant parole first thing in the morning.
The author said he happened upon “hundreds, if not thousands” of eye-opening discoveries while doing research for the book. One of the more poignant discoveries for him was coming across a photograph of a lineup of five black men taken the year he was born in Meriwether County, Georgia. A woman had been brutally raped, he said, and was asked to identify her rapist from a live lineup. She picked out the wrong guy and he went on to serve 27 years in prison until a DNA test in 2007 proved he didn’t do it. The man who was actually responsible was standing two to the right of the convicted man; he had been in jail for an unrelated offense at the time and was included in the lineup as a filler.
“What that, I think, really shows is just the central theme of this book—that people with the best intentions can create terrible injustice,” he said. “The threat we have in the U.S. is not just from bigoted police officers or corrupt judges, but actually good police officers or eyewitnesses… and that’s a really scary thing.”
The other featured book is Senghor’s memoir, “Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison,” also a New York Times bestseller. In it, Senghor shares the story of his 19-year incarceration—seven of which he spent in solitary confinement—and how he used that time for self-examination, reading and meditation. He used the tools, he said, to confront past demons, forgive people and begin atoning for his own wrongs.
“If I am released from prison, I plan to work and volunteer at local high schools and community centers,” he promises a parole board member in the book. “My ultimate goal is to pursue a career in writing.”
His memoir was a step in that direction. Senghor recounts how it was a letter from his 10-year-old son that spurred him to turn his life around. Whereas he had spent years blaming everybody, from his parents to the system, channeling that anger into violence, he said he started taking responsibility for his own life, dedicating himself to doing whatever it took to leave prison in order to mentor other young people facing the same circumstances that led him to where he was. Then on June 22, 2010, one day after his 38th birthday, after proving himself to the parole board, his wish was granted.
“I started writing ‘Writing My Wrongs’ while still in prison, and I hoped that by sharing my story, I could save a young man or woman who may be headed down the same path that led me to prison,” he said in a message to Silicon Valley Reads organizers. “I hope my story inspires you to challenge injustice wherever you find it, and I look forward to adding to the current conversations happening across the country around justice and equal access for all.”
Silicon Valley Reads kicks off Feb. 23 at the Visual and Performing Arts Center at De Anza College with a multimedia exhibit preview at 6:30 p.m., followed by a 7:30 p.m. conversation between Benforado and San Jose Mercury News columnist Sal Pizarro. As part of that talk, Benforado said he plans to outline what he considers to be significant problems in the criminal justice system.
“I’ll go into the damaging myths about our criminal justice system then talk about the next steps and what we can do to reform some of these areas that are so clearly in need of a remedy, whether that’s policing, the prison system or the problems with forensic evidence,” he said.
The event is free and open to the public on a first come, first served basis. Benforado, along with Senghor, will make additional appearances in March.
A full schedule of events will be announced in late January. A number of community leaders will be taking part in this year’s program, among them District Attorney Jeff Rosen, county Supervisor Mike Wasserman and three police chiefs. The events will include author readings, discussion groups, art exhibits, film screenings and children’s crafts and storytimes.
As part of the Silicon Valley Reads program, a multimedia exhibit at De Anza College’s Euphrat Museum of Art titled “Justice for All?” will run Feb. 1-March 23, bringing together artists exploring the intersections of criminal and social justice, according to McNutt.
“The artists face injustice and call for empathy to guide our actions and institutions,” she said.
The exhibit runs Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., with some exceptions. A reception with the artists will be held Feb. 15, 5:30-7:30 p.m. In addition to music and refreshments, the event will include a reading by Santa Clara County poet laureate Arlene Biala.
Silicon Valley Reads is sponsored by the Santa Clara County Library District, San Jose Public Library and the Santa Clara County Office of Education. The theme of last year’s program was water and climate change and featured works by Emmi Itäranta (“Memory of Water”) and Benjamin Parzybok (“Sherwood Nation”).
Visit DeAnza.edu/euphrat/inthemuseum for more information about the exhibit schedule. For more information about Silicon Valley Reads, visit SiliconValleyReads.org.