If you read any local paper, you already know about Timothy Atkins — an innocent man who spent almost 22 and a half years in prison for a crime that he did not commit.

Freed in February of this year, it didn’t take long for Timothy to get his new life together. It’s far different from his pre-prison years.

He was raised in Venice by both his maternal and paternal grandmothers. His mother was in and out of prison; his father was “just here and there.” The only influence he had as a child was what he saw on the streets. At 13, he got caught up in gangs and drugs.

A lot of young people are fortunate to have mentors to help them turn their lives around. Timothy had time — prison sentence time to take a good look at himself. He realized that he had always been a follower — he went along with whatever was happening on the streets. In prison he learned that he was a strong individual.

“I felt free from what was going on in the streets as being a problem,” he said recently. “I found out that there was more to life than that.”

Timothy tried to become a mentor in prison by helping the younger inmates and talking to them about gangs. After all, he had the experience to back him up, even though he was not guilty of the crime for which he was committed.

“I let them know that I spent so many years in prison that I found out the way we were living, we weren’t supposed to be living like that.”

Was he successful? Not always. It’s a real uphill battle.

“Prison is its own society and it’s kind of hard because you’re tried and tested every day — by the prisoners and occasionally the prison guards.”

What Timothy did do is get an education. While in prison he took Homeland Security courses that deal with crises training for volunteers and some college courses such as counseling and communications.

“I was going to start sociology,” he says. Now he has signed up for the Youth and Gang Violence Intervention Specialist Training Program at the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

A decision to focus on gang intervention upon his release was made even before Timothy started working with prison inmates.

“Sitting back looking at my life, I felt that if someone had stepped in soon enough and had just worked with me, my life might have been entirely different,” he says. “Because I’ve been through so much, it would be a shame for me to just get out and keep it to myself. So, what I want to try to do is try to be an impact on them [gang members]. That’s my mission.”

A job was waiting for Timothy at Venice 2000, a nonprofit organization founded on the belief that every person with the proper resources and guidance can and will make the transition from negative influences to positive alternatives.

Timothy and Venice 2000 executive director Stan Muhammad “used to run the streets together” and they have kept in touch through the years.

Now Timothy is part of the Safe Passages program at Venice High School, whose goal is to provide optimum safety while students arrive and leave school. It is part of LA Bridges, the Community Development Department’s Gang Prevention and Intervention program.

In the short time that Timothy has been out of prison, he is finding that some parents are putting the responsibility of child rearing off on other people and are not being there for their children.

“A lot of parents still want to be young and have a good time,” he says. “There are kids out there with no guidance whatsoever. Being young, kids make things up as they go along. They try to feel their way through life.

“I tell youngsters all the time that the easiest thing to do is to get in trouble. The hardest thing to do is get up out of it. Your choices and decisions are very critical.”

Timothy also goes on a speaking circuit. He won his freedom through the California Innocence Project, a law school program that operates out of the Institute for Criminal Defense Advocacy of California Western School of Law. Under this program, students work alongside practicing criminal defense attorneys to seek the release of wrongfully convicted inmates, in the state of California, who maintain their factual innocence.

One of the first things Timothy did after his release was to go to Sacramento to speak on behalf of Senate Bill (SB) 511, which states that all custodial interrogations of persons suspected of a homicide or violent felony shall be required to be recorded. But the bill was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Now Timothy goes to various law schools to talk to first-year students.

“A lot of law students are going to be future district attorneys and prosecutors,” he says. “I tell them not to trade in their morals and values. I say, ‘Whatever you chose this field for — if you chose it for justice, then that’s what you should fight for. It shouldn’t matter if you win or lose as long as justice prevails.’

“I explain to them that nobody who is innocent should ever spend a day in jail. If you convict an innocent man, you still have a killer running in the streets. So, that means that the public is still at risk. That’s not what the system is about. After the police make a case, the last person to get it is the D.A. [district attorney]. The D.A. has the final decision. A lot of D.A.s are not making the right decision.”

This Thanksgiving will be special for Timothy. He has a lot to be thankful for.

“I’m thankful that I still have my family and that I was able to walk out of prison after so many years,” he says. “A lot of people never come back home.

“I’m thankful that the truth was found out and I was exonerated. For me, the worst thing in the world is to be sitting in prison and to have people think that I had something to do with a murder.

“Outside of just being there, being accused of the crime itself, that’s the worst thing that you can do. Because once a life is taken there’s nothing you can do to go back and correct that and make it right.”

The future looks good for Timothy. He has a job. He has a mission. He’s an expectant father. He has a positive outlook.

“To be bitter is to stop my progress,” he says. “We all know that just living, there are a lot of things in life that we have no control over. When you get caught in a bad situation, when something bad happens to you, you should take and learn from that situation. That’s what I did. I’m growing because I learned from my situation.

“To be bitter would stunt my growth. I don’t want to be a miserable old man.”