Emily Horowitz spends a lot of time with people other professors don't. Criminals. Domestic violence victims. Domestic violence perps. Sex offenders. Guys convicted of murder. She teaches sociology and criminology at St. Francis College in Brooklyn and she introduces her students to the same folks she's meeting, in an effort to change lives — the students' and the convicts'.
Actually, sometimes those are one and the same.
Horowitz is one of those people who walk the walk. Before coming to St. Francis, she got her PhD in sociology at Yale, concentrating in women's studies. As research, she decided to spend a year in domestic violence court, watching as women finally got justice.
But...that wasn't what she saw. "I was shocked that it was just poor and unemployed men being slammed over and over," says Horowitz, herself the mom of four. "If a man slapped his partner, yes, he should be punished." But the extraordinarily harsh sentences she witnessed didn't seem designed to improve anyone's prospects. The courts were treating every case as if it was inevitably going to end in murder.
She began to regard the criminal justice system with curiosity: How much was overkill baked into the system?
To find out, she started inviting convicts who'd been exonerated to speak to her class. "Marty Tankleff, he falsely confessed to killing his parents. He spoke to my class — from prison," says Horowitz matter-of-factly. "We had Jesse Friedman" — notorious from the movie "Capturing the Friedmans" — "And we had Bernard Baran."
"Bernard was a working-class, gay teenager who dropped out of high school because he was bullied. This was in the '80s. He started working at a day care center, which he really liked," says Horowitz. "But a couple went to the head of the day care and said they didn't want a 'homo' watching their son. ' And the day care said, 'Well, we can't fire a person because of that.' And lo and behold, the couple started alleging that Baron molested their son," says Horowitz.
This was at the very dawn of day care sex abuse panic. Baran was quickly found guilty and given three life sentences. The judge said that putting a gay man in a day care center was like putting a chocoholic in a candy store — as if being a gay man and being a child molester were one and the same thing.
A group that Horowitz joined, the National Center for Reason and Justice, helped champion Baran's case, and he was finally freed after more than 20 years behind bars. The charges against him were completely dropped. "When he spoke to my class, he was talking about what it was like being a gay man convicted of child molestation, in prison. They'd put cigarettes out on his head," Horowitz says. He was beaten. He was raped more than 30 times. As he told his story, her students wept.
Those tears — and those students — will go on to make a difference. "St. Francis is this amazing college for first generation students," says Horowitz. Many choose careers in law enforcement. "Now they will have a much more nuanced view of the people they're dealing with. They're seeing people who have been affected personally by the system."
It changed Horowitz herself. This past year she arranged for five folks who were formerly incarcerated to matriculate at her college. If you believe in second chances — and especially if you don't — consider this: One of those students has already proved such an amazing scholar, straight A's, that the school is sending her on a Franciscan pilgrimage to Assisi.
St. Francis was all about redemption. Horowitz, too. Here's hoping her students — and the rest of us! — are likewise stirred.