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Doc Rivers: Why I’m working with the Pa. Innocence Project

The number of innocent Americans in prison or jail is disturbing. Our system fails too many of us, and any person who has been wrongfully convicted deserves justice.

Sixers head coach Doc Rivers.
Sixers head coach Doc Rivers.Read moreChristian Petersen / MCT

My father was a police officer in my hometown of Maywood, Ill. I would often get home and see folks from the neighborhood in or around my house getting advice — sometimes unsolicited — from my dad. He was always offering a perspective because he wanted to help and build up the people in our community.

Because of my father, I know that our government systems can be a force for good. At the same time, both of my parents taught me to always try to look honestly at the problems facing us and to speak plainly about right and wrong.

And when our criminal justice system gets it wrong, innocent people suffer.

The number of innocent Americans in prison or jail — an estimated 20,000 to 100,000 — is disturbing. Yet only a fraction of innocent men and women are exonerated and freed. We know this hits the Black community hardest because African Americans are incarcerated at nearly five times the rate of our white counterparts.

Let’s be clear: This is not just a Black and white issue. Our system fails too many of us of all backgrounds, and any person who has been wrongfully convicted deserves justice. But to truly build a country that provides equal justice under the law, we must be clear-eyed about the disproportionate impacts of our system on communities of color.

Change starts with each of us, wherever we are. That is why I’m partnering with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, an organization that has worked to exonerate many of the men and women wrongfully behind bars.

I will be hosting exonerees at a Sixers practice this month and hope to host more in the second half of the season. I do this because the Pennsylvania Innocence Project stands for the simple but important idea that justice is not inevitable and that we have a duty to repair harms wherever they arise. I want my community to live up to that principle.

I’m encouraged that Americans across the political spectrum already understand that, when we boil the issues down, fairness and freedom are at the core of the movement for criminal justice reform. That’s why criminal justice reform is one of the issues where we still have strong bipartisan support for policy solutions across the country.

That includes right here in Pennsylvania. In 2018, Acts 146 and 147, supported by Republicans and Democrats, were signed into state law by Gov. Tom Wolf. This legislation takes a step toward justice by giving some system-involved Pennsylvanians more time to file a petition if new evidence is uncovered, as well as expanded access to DNA testing to prove innocence.

Even if they didn’t know it, millions of Pennsylvanians helped bring about this important local change; they voted. And not just for president or congressional representatives: They voted for the state legislators who built the consensus to make these laws possible.

But there is more to do. Right now, Pennsylvania is one of only 12 states in the country that provides no compensation of any kind to those who have been wrongfully convicted. And we in Pennsylvania have yet to join roughly two dozen other states in requiring that all police interrogations be recorded — a practice that’s also used in the District of Columbia and at the federal level, and which is designed to protect innocent people as well as officers. We need lawmakers to introduce and debate these proposals. We can start by calling our state legislators and asking them to support both proposals.

Supporting good policy is key to continuing the public reckoning with the way our criminal justice system affects us, especially Black men and women. In the last few years, I’ve been heartened to see genuine care and commitment from every corner of our country. Individuals, businesses, community organizations, longtime activists, and new younger leaders have all stepped up for the cause of civil rights.

I’m proud that the NBA has also been a part of that growth. Players, coaches, and executives have spoken out, joined public rallies, and sustained attention on the need for racial justice. We formed the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition to focus on long-term policy reform, and we changed this year’s NBA schedule so no games would be played on Election Day to encourage fans to vote.

“Speaking up and speaking out is part of our national legacy.”

Doc Rivers

Our actions can help build on the efforts of icons like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rep. John Lewis, as well as community leaders like my father. Similarly, in the NBA family, our commitment to social justice stands on the shoulders of legends like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the late great Bill Russell.

After all, speaking up and speaking out is part of our national legacy.

Doc Rivers is head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. Since 2021, he has served on the board of the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition, the 501(c)(4) advocacy organization of players, coaches, and executives leading the NBA family’s social justice efforts.