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Preventing wrongful convictions: state and local governments starting to take action

In the third and final presidential debate, moderator Chris Wallace didn't ask any questions about criminal justice.

Maybe he should have. After all, reform of the criminal justice system to reduce racial disparities and prevent wrongful convictions is an urgent issue. The arrival on the scene of DNA evidence has become a gamechanger, exposing the fact that far too often, the justice system has convicted innocent people.

In this post, let's take a look at a couple of examples of how state and local governments are starting to take action to help prevent wrongful convictions.

Oregon: Multnomah County's conviction-integrity initiative

About two years ago, the district attorney for Multnomah County designated a veteran prosecutor to help prevent wrongful convictions and respond to challenges of convictions.

This is a relatively new, but growing, development around the country. At the time Multnomah County took action, it was one of 15 prosecutors' offices in the U.S. to either create a unit devoted to conviction integrity or assign that responsibility to a particular prosecutor.

"It's our job to do it right in the first place and double-check our work if we need to," district attorney (DA) Rod Underhill said at the time.

The prosecutor whom Underhill appointed to focus on conviction integrity, Ross Ratto, has worked to develop procedural protocols for the DA's office. The protocols are supposed to discourage wrongful convictions by addressing key procedural matters.

One of these is of course DNA analysis. Others include eyewitness evidence, the role of informants and drug tests.

California: 3 new laws

Given the adversarial nature of the criminal justice system, however, there are real limitations on expecting prosecutors to serve as their own watchdogs with conviction-integrity initiatives. At the end of the day, there remains a lot of pressure on police and prosecutors to get convictions.

Without a doubt, the old "cops and robbers" mentality continues to affect the criminal justice system in profound ways. This is the case even when prosecutors have good intentions.

And so California has passed not one but three new laws aimed at preventing wrongful convictions. These laws will:

• Allow for challenges to convictions based on new evidence if that evidence probably would have changed the outcome at trial.

• Enable immigrants who may be deported as a result of a conviction to bring forward evidence that is newly discovered.

• Require law enforcement officers to make recordings of interrogations in homicide cases.

Interestingly, the California Police Chiefs Association was among the supporters of the recorded interrogations bill. As we noted in our previous post, coerced confessions often lead to wrongful convictions.

When things go wrong

In short, there are some encouraging developments in several states aimed at preventing wrongful convictions. But such convictions are still far too common. If you or someone close to you has been wrongfully convicted, it's important to take action to seek post-conviction relief.

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