Sunday, June 24, 2018

America’s prosecutors are so hellbent on closing cases and getting guilty verdicts that they will often get them by any means necessary.

The following opinion by Shaun King was published by The Intercept on June 22, 2018.

THERE IS A humanitarian crisis unfolding on our borders, in which thousands of immigrant children, including infants and toddlers, have been forcefully taken from their parents and sent away with strangers. But another crisis — where families are also separated — is hanging over American life: mass incarceration. Now, though, one of the most important pieces of criminal justice reform legislation is on the cusp of becoming law in New York. As it stands, the bill is one signature away — Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s — from being put on the books.

Every day, we hear about horrible cases, in which men and women — often black men and women — are being set free from prison after serving huge chunks of their lives for crimes they didn’t commit. Sometimes they have served 30 or 40 years behind bars. Frequently, prosecutorial misconduct was the cause of the wrongful conviction.

It could be that exonerating evidence was deliberately withheld or confessions of guilt from an entirely different person were disregarded. Maybe credible, verifiable alibis were ignored. In some cases, DNA evidence was shelved and ignored.

All this because America’s prosecutors are so hellbent on closing cases and getting guilty verdicts that they will often get them by any means necessary.

Jabbar Collins comes to mind.

In 1994, he was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a local rabbi — except he was completely innocent. Determined to close the case, prosecutors hid crucial evidence that exonerated him, threatened witnesses, and gave other witnesses perks to completely fabricate their testimony. After serving 15 painful years in prison, Collins was finally set free. It cost him a generation of his life — and it cost New York City and the state $13 million, which he won in a lawsuit.

THESE TYPES OF exonerations are far from uncommon. After reviewing all of their exoneration cases, guess what the Innocence Project determined as the leading cause of wrongful convictions? Prosecutorial misconduct. A 2018 study by the National Registry of Exonerations made the exact same determination. Police and prosecutor misconduct — not faulty witnesses or false confessions — is the primary cause of wrongful convictions in our country.

In New York, though, political bodies are finally pushing for some accountability. As of last week, the State Assembly and Senate have now each passed a bill, the first of its kind in the nation, forming an independent commission with full subpoena power, to investigate prosecutorial misconduct. It’s wild that nothing like this already exists, but that gets to the heart of the matter. America’s prosecutors have been able to be consistently awful with little to no formal, binding oversight.

Nearly 18 months passed between the bill’s introduction and its passage in both chambers of the state legislature. And now it’s awaiting Cuomo’s signature. The issue is so dire that Human Rights Watch wrote an open letter to the governor in support of the bill. “New York currently has no effective system in place to hold prosecutors who violate their legal and ethical duties accountable,” the New York-based group said in its letter.

Human Rights Watch went on to detail case after case of wrongful convictions in the state in which prosecutorial misconduct was the primary cause. In each case, innocent people spent long periods of their lives behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit. Not only did the wrongful convictions and sentences cost the state millions of dollars to incarcerate the wrong people, tens of millions more were spent on settlements to compensate these men.

And yet the prosecutors just keep on handling cases like it never happened. The prosecutor in the Jabbar Collins case was eventually forced to retire because of misconduct, but he never faced any other sanctions. Eventually, he wrote a book that’s now reportedly being made into a TV show. It’s outrageous.

It wasn’t easy to get to this point where New York could pass historic legislation to hold prosecutors to account. Now, one question remains: Will Cuomo sign the bill or veto it?

Pretty much the only people fighting against the bill are prosecutors themselves. The District Attorneys’ Association of the State of New York lobbied hard against it, simply dismissing the measures as unnecessary — which is nonsense because we have seen, as in the Collins case, that far too often these prosecutors are not held to any account at all.

So Cuomo has to decide: Will he side with the people who have been wrongfully convicted because of prosecutorial misconduct — many of whom I’d guess remain in prison, their appeals unheard — or with the prosecutors who get away scot-free for putting the wrong people behind bars?

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Trump says he's considering a pardon for Muhammad Ali, whose conviction was overturned

This article by Associated Press writer Jill Colvin was published by the New Orleans Times-Picayune on June 8, 2018.

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump said Friday (June 8) he may pardon the late heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who doesn't seem to need one. And for futures acts of clemency, he may seek recommendations from pro football players and other athletes who have protested racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem.

Trump said that "instead of talk," he is going to ask protesting players to suggest "people that they think were unfairly treated by the justice system." The president said football players have "seen a lot of abuse" and "a lot of unfairness" and that he wants their input on his use of this executive power.

Trump told reporters as he left the White House for a meeting with in Canada with U.S. allies that his team was "looking at literally thousands of names" of people for potential pardons because they were treated unfairly or their sentences are too long.

Ali is one name on this list, Trump said, though it was not immediately clear why Ali would need a pardon because he has no criminal record. The Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971 for resisting the draft.

Ali was born Cassius Clay, and changed his name after converting to Islam in the 1960s. He refused to serve in the Vietnam War because of his religious beliefs, declaring himself a conscientious objector, and saying, "I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong."

Ali was stripped of his heavyweight crown in 1967. Ali's legal fight ended in 1971, when the Supreme Court ruled in his favor. He regained the boxing title in 1974. Ali died in 2016.

Trump already has granted a posthumous pardon to boxing's first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, more than 100 years after many saw as his racially charged conviction. Johnson was convicted in 1913 by an all-white jury of violating the Mann Act for traveling with his white girlfriend. That law made it illegal to transport women across state lines for "immoral" purposes.

Earlier this week, Trump commuted the life sentence of a woman whose cause was championed by Kim Kardashian West.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Do right, Ohio, by the wrongfully convicted

The following editorial was published by the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com on May 16, 2018.

The state can commit few more grievous errors than wrongfully convicting and imprisoning a man or woman. When discovered, such an error requires swift and adequate compensation, a financial package offering some cushion against the blow of altered lives and lost liberty. In 1986, Ohio took the lead among states when the legislature enacted a process for addressing wrongful convictions.

Unfortunately, the process has broken down, especially since an Ohio Supreme Court ruling in 2014. Now the legislature has an opportunity to advance improvements. House Bill 411 cleared committee with strong bipartisan support last month. It deserves a floor vote this week or next, before lawmakers recess.

What has gone wrong? The story goes back to the initial law, the legislature allowing compensation only for those who proved “actual innocence,” an extremely high standard. So, in 2003, lawmakers made a helpful adjustment. They expanded eligibility to cover wrongful convictions due to “errors in procedure,” or constitutional violations.

The change represented an advance, six of the 31 claims since 2003 involving errors in procedure, the rest going to innocence. Then, Mansaray v. State of Ohio landed before the high court, and the justices seized on a substantial legislative drafting error. The court ruled that as written, the law permitted compensation only for errors in procedure after sentencing and during or after imprisonment.

That all but gutted the advance. Most errors in procedure occur before sentencing.

House Bill 411, sponsored by state Reps. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican, and Emilia Sykes, an Akron Democrat, provides an overdue correction. It serves someone like Dale Johnston, now age 84, wrongfully convicted in 1982 of murdering his daughter and her boyfriend. He spent six years on death row until an appeals court reversed his conviction. Prosecutors withheld evidence about witnesses who had a different version of the killings.

Johnston sought compensation, but the courts found him unable to prove his innocence. Now he faces the obstacle of the procedural error occurring before sentencing, making him ineligible under the high court ruling.

In the meantime, the actual killers have been identified. Johnson has been waiting nearly three decades for the state to right its wrong. The compensation hardly is excessive at $52,000 for each year wrongfully imprisoned. The state has more than a moral obligation. Its actions have wrecked innocent lives, most at financial bottom when released.

House Bill 411 is narrowly constructed. The error in procedure is limited to those instances when prosecutors commit a constitutional violation in withholding evidence that could benefit the defendant. It allows for offsets if a defendant wins an award in a related civil lawsuit. It establishes eligibility if the prosecution doesn’t file new charges within a year.

All of this deserves the support of prosecutors. Unfortunately, they are not there. That shouldn’t slow the House from approval, sending the measure to the Senate, the state needing to do better by those wrongfully convicted.


Monday, May 07, 2018

VIRGINIA PRISON JUSTICE NETWORK ACTION ALERT

From https://vapjn.wordpress.com/

On Tuesday, April 24, around 5:30 pm, Virginia prisoner advocate Dale Pughsley, aka Askari Danso, was handcuffed by guards and removed from his cell at Sussex II Virginia State Prison, along with his cellmate, Mr. D. Braxton.  Mr. Danso assumed he was being taken to the watch commander, but instead was taken to Sussex I, a higher-level security prison, and put into solitary confinement, without any explanation.

Mr. Pughsley is now being held at Sussex I in 3D 15. His supporters are asking that people call the Unit Manager there and ask why he has been transferred and why he is in being held in solitary. The prison’s phone number is 804-834-9967.

Mr. Pughsley is a well-known, highly respected prisoner-organizer and the founder of VAPOC (Virginia Prisoner of Conscience), a prisoner-led group that works to educate prisoners on their rights and also works from the inside out for prison reform.  VAPOC is sponsored by the Coalition for Justice, a 501c3 in Blacksburg. Mr. Pughsley is on the CFJ steering committee and also is a member of the Richmond-based organization, Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality.

Mr. Pughsley had been at Augusta Correctional Center, a Level 3 security facility, but was transferred to Sussex II, a level 4 facility, on March 2, 2018. Sussex I is a Level 4-5.  He had filed an appeal against his transfer from Augusta to Sussex II, because the reason given for the transfer was without substance. Mr. Pughsley is still waiting for that appeal to be heard.  He believes that his role as an organizer and the fact that he has filed multiple grievances both at Augusta and at Sussex II is the real reason for transfers to successively higher-level security facilities, which has now landed him in solitary at Sussex I.

Mr. Pughsley has launched over 30 grievances to the Virginia Department of Corrections. The most recent challenges, while at Sussex II, were over mental health for long-term offenders, water quality, grievance procedures, access and upkeep of the law library, prisoner rights to access the court, and property transfer issues. He also created a Sussex II Human Rights Committee in order, not just to educate prisoners on their rights, but to work in a coordinated way to make sure their rights are observed. At Augusta Correctional, he launched grievances regarding religious freedom, racial justice issues, free speech issues, and the grievance procedures for prisoners.

Mr. Pughsley has not been accused of any prison violations since 2009, which involved a cell phone case.  His repeated transfer to higher-security facilities is extremely troubling.  No explanation has been given for his transfer and, as he has not violated prison rules, the transfer to Sussex I is illegal.  In what appears to be an emergency transfer, the Regional Administrator may authorize a temporary transfer to any equal or higher security level institutional bed. Such decisions may be made for security and health reasons only, and must conform to the definition of Emergency Transfer in Operating Procedure 830.5 (11/1/14).  Mr. Pughsley is not a security risk, as he has no infractions against him. Emergency transfers can only be done when it has been found necessary to protect offenders and staff from imminent danger of physical harm, or to prohibit offenders from destruction of State property, and/or escape. This does not apply to Mr. Pughsley. 

All temporary, emergency transfer decisions are subject to review and approval by CCS (Central Classification Services), and the institutional administrator must provide a detailed written explanation of the rationale for the offender’s assignment to segregation/ restrictive housing, and the need for their immediate transfer from the current housing institution,  Mr. Danso was given no such explanation. He was also not given his personal property.We call on the CSS to provide an explanation for the transfer of Mr. Pughsley and Mr.Braxton and for Mr. Pughsley to be removed from solitary confinement and have access to his personal property.

For more information, contact VAPJN members Margaret Breslau at justicebburg@gmail.com or Phil Wilayto at: DefendersFJE@hotmail.com.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The latest California death row exoneration shows why we need to end the death penalty

The following editorial by the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board was published on April 27, 2018.

A Kern County Superior Court judge last week ordered that a 68-year-old former farmworker, Vicente Benavides Figueroa, be released from San Quentin's death row after the local district attorney declared she would not retry him. Benavides had been in prison for more than 25 years after being convicted of raping, sodomizing and murdering his girlfriend's 21-month-old daughter.

Benavides was freed after all but one of the medical experts who testified against him recanted their conclusions that the girl had, in effect, been raped to death — conclusions they had reached after reviewing incomplete medical records. In fact, the first nurses and doctors who examined the semiconscious and battered girl in 1991 observed no injuries suggesting she had been raped or sodomized, but those details were not passed along to the medical expert witnesses who testified in court. Injuries later observed at two other hospitals were likely caused by that first effort to save her life, which included attempts to insert an adult-sized catheter.

Convicting Benavides was an egregious miscarriage of justice; he spent a quarter-century on death row for a crime he apparently did not commit. His exoneration serves as a reminder of what ought to be abundantly clear by now: that despite jury trials, appellate reconsideration and years of motions and counter-motions, the justice system is not infallible, and it is possible (or perhaps inevitable) that innocent people will end up facing execution at the hands of the state. Not all of them will be saved, as Benavides was.

The case also ought to remind us of the dangers inherent in California's efforts to speed up the calendar for death penalty appeals under Proposition 66, which voters approved in 2016. Moving more quickly to execute convicted death row inmates increases the likelihood that due process will be given short shrift and the innocent will be put to death. Benavides — described in court filings as a seasonal worker with intellectual disabilities — was convicted in 1993. But the records that blew up the case against Benavides, but also raised doubt that Consuelo Verdugo had been murdered at all, were not uncovered until about 2000. Proposition 66 makes it less likely that such diligent research can be completed in the single year it gives appellate attorneys to file their cases (a process that currently consumes three years or more), and thus more likely that innocent people will be put to death.
This rush-to-execute mood isn't California's alone. Florida adopted its own speed-up legislation five years ago. And around the country, pro-death penalty advocates argue that the condemned take advantage of the appeals process to delay their executions. Federal statistics for 2013, the last year available, show an average of 15 1/2 years between sentence and execution for people on death row in the U.S. At least 365 people have been on California's death row for 20 years or more.

Benavides was released after more than 25 years. Two half-brothers in North Carolina spent about 30 years under death sentences before they were exonerated. Since the Supreme Court revived the death penalty in 1976, more than 150 people have been exonerated of the murders for which they were condemned (in most cases that also meant the real killers got away with it), with an average of more than 11 years between sentence and exoneration. A 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that at least 4% of the people sitting on America's death rows are probably innocent. With a national death row population of 2,700 people, that means more than 100 people currently under death sentences probably are innocent — about 30 of them in California. A rush to execution will only increase the chances that state governments will execute the innocent in the name of the people.

The unfixable problem with the death penalty is that mistakes get made, witnesses lie, confessions get coerced — all factors that can lead to false convictions. It is abjectly immoral to speed things up by limiting due process. The better solution is to get rid of the death penalty altogether.


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Innocent, But In Jail: Exonerations Where ‘Justice’ Has Failed

The following op-ed by Toni Messina was published on March 19, 2018 by Above the Law.

If the initial prosecution of defendants was more fair, fewer innocent people would wind up in jail.

It’s no surprise that innocent people get convicted of crimes they never committed.

While our jury system is a great one, mistakes can happen.  Sometimes by chance, like mistaken identifications; sometimes by plan — people bribing witnesses to lie, prosecutors withholding exculpatory information, police planting information on suspects.

Imagine the agony of being wrongfully convicted.  Not only does the person have to suffer the horrors of being incarcerated while knowing he did nothing wrong, but decades of his life are lost to a system where “justice” failed.

That’s why keeping tabs on data regarding exonerations is vital.  In which states were the most people exonerated?  What were the reasons innocent people were found guilty, especially those facing the death penalty?  What can be done to limit the chances of more innocent people going to jail?

Last week, the National Registry of Exonerations released two reports — one covering exonerations in 2017, the other listing exonerations from 1820 through 1988.

And while it’s a great start — many people are being exonerated – boy, is there room for improvement.

Some of the major takeaways:

–  Science sometimes gets it wrong. (Remember when lie detectors were considered infallible? Today their results are no longer permitted into evidence.) Bad science has been a big contributor to wrongful convictions.  Take Ledura Watkins, from Michigan.  He was convicted of murdering a school teacher based on a single hair found at the crime scene that investigators believed had microscopic similarities to his own hair.  Later, the FBI discredited the comparison process.  Watkins was released from jail after serving 41 years!

Other debunked science includes: “shaken baby” injuries which led to wrongful convictions of parents and babysitters; fingerprint analysis — no longer foolproof (depends on how clean the fingerprinted lifted and the number of points of comparison). Even DNA analysis, once believed to be the sine qua non of evidence to show that someone was at the scene of a crime, is consistently being tweaked in recognition that past analysis methods were flawed.

–    Official misconduct plays a big role.  The report breaks down into categories the reasons for wrongful convictions.  They include: mistaken identification, witness perjury, inadequate legal defense, false or misleading forensic evidence, false confessions, and official misconduct.

Of these categories a majority of the exonerations last year were due to official misconduct. Eighty-four of the 139 exonerations involved wrongful behavior by police, prosecutors, and other government officials.  That misconduct takes the form of false arrests, falsifying paperwork, lying to defendants to elicit false confessions, hiding exculpatory evidence, and police perjury on the stand.

Some forward-thinking prosecutors offices are developing their own exoneration units where, in-house, they look at cases proffered as wrongful convictions and (with the help of outside exoneration offices like the Innocence Project or EXI) determine whether there’s enough evidence to cast doubt on the justness of a conviction.

What starts the ball rolling is generally letters from defendants, or recanted eye witness testimony.  Attorneys can ask to re-test DNA (or check for DNA if it was never done) which might, say, exclude a defendant’s sperm from a rape case.

Where a number of letters accuse one particular cop of misconduct, a prosecutors office might start looking into the entire backlog of that cop.

This is what happened in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office in relation to former detective Louis Scarcella. As of Oct. 2017, 12 convictions in which he played a role have been overturned.  The detective’s overzealous acts included coaching witnesses to testify against defendants, inventing and coercing confessions, and arresting people for no reason, then falsifying evidence against them.  The Brooklyn DA’s Office is looking into some 70 of his cases.

While the amount of exonerations have generally grown higher year to year, the numbers do not reflect how many wrongful convictions are in the system.  Many cases never see the light of day.  Whether the defendant has passed away, doesn’t have the wherewithal to contact an attorney, or because there are so many thousands of these claims of innocence, many just don’t get the attention of a prosecutor or exoneration initiative.

Most of these people still languish in jail. The reality is there are far more cases that should be looked into than lawyers ready to handle the work.   (It’s clear from statistics that defendants with lawyers backing them have the best chances of winning an exoneration.)

Prosecutors offices around the country (and even public defender organizations where time and budget permits) should think about designating specialized units for this work.  Thousands of men and women claim to have been wrongfully convicted each year.  It takes time, money, and a fine hand to determine which cases have a basis in fact and which are merely wishful thinking.

Of course, if the initial prosecution of defendants was more fair, fewer innocent people would wind up in jail.  There are many facets that could be improved, but my top two would be:

1) Make the initial interrogation of suspects more transparent.  To avoid false confessions (a large source of wrongful convictions), impose a protocol that all such questioning be videotaped from the initial “Hello, I’m Det. So-and-So” to the Miranda reading through the close of questioning.  Such a measure will put police on notice that their tactics (lying to suspects, promising to release them, etc.) are being watched.

2) Provide defense attorneys with open-file discovery (information about the prosecution’s case) early on in the game, and not just a day before trial (as is done in New York).  That way, if leads need to be developed that might point to an alternate suspect or theory of the case — it can be done promptly and fairly, reducing the chances of a wrongful conviction.

Toni Messina has tried over 100 cases and has been practicing criminal law and immigration since 1990. You can follow her on Twitter: @tonitamess.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

What Criminal Justice Can Learn From Its Bad Outcomes

The following commentary by James Doyle and Rianna P. Starheim was published by Governing on February 5, 2018.

In Milwaukee, an offender committed murder while released on supervision. In Seattle, questions remained over how a deadly police encounter unfolded. In New York City, fatigued officers made questionable decisions during a routine traffic stop. We can agree that these scenarios reflect system failings. However, the criminal justice system lacks a mechanism to examine these events and effectively prevent their recurrence.

When a significant negative outcome, or "sentinel event," happens in the criminal-justice system, it is rarely the result of a single actor or mistake. Rather, many small misjudgments, oversights and other errors compound to create a context in which a death in custody, a wounded police officer, a failure to provide sufficient probationary supervision or other negative event can occur.

Traditionally, the American criminal-justice system has taken a "bad apple" approach to error that assigns blame after a negative event. Although focusing on individual performance is appropriate in some instances, this approach fails to address the multiple system flaws that may have contributed to a problem. Errors are often caused by many individuals making decisions based on what they see as the best course of action in a given set of circumstances. Often, systems have set up these front-line actors to fail. If we merely punish a single individual without examining larger systemic issues, we miss a crucial opportunity to learn from error and prevent future negative outcomes.

Shifting the criminal-justice culture away from blame and toward safety and improvement is the goal of the National Institute of Justice's Sentinel Events Initiative, which mobilizes a system-oriented approach to error. This is not a "one-size-fits-all-jurisdictions" federal effort. Rather, the Sentinel Events Initiative supports the local development of a review process in which all actors -- law-enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, victims, advocates and others -- conduct a forward-looking review of a sentinel event to identify and mend contributing system weaknesses.

Rather than simply assigning blame, these reviews ask the question, "How can we keep this from happening again?" Reviews have been implemented to examine the near-miss prosecution of a father wrongly accused, but then cleared, of murder in Illinois; a homicide committed by a minor under supervision in Milwaukee; and wrongful-conviction cases in New York City.

Although it is impossible to put a price tag on justice-system failings, scattered studies give a sense of the magnitude of the cost to taxpayers. Texas, which has paid more than $93 million in compensation, has one of the most generous compensation statutes for wrongfully convicted individuals, allowing a lump-sum payment equal to $80,000 for each year an individual was wrongfully incarcerated as well as monthly annuity payments. Illinois has spent more than $250 million on wrongful convictions, including $156 million for legal settlements. In addressing factors that will eliminate the need for future compensation and lawsuits, sentinel-event reviews can help mitigate these costs, as well as the unquantifiable impact on the lives of the wrongfully convicted, the toll sentinel events can take on officer welfare, and the danger of the real perpetrators walking free.

The Sentinel Events Initiative draws inspiration from medicine and aviation, which have used these reviews to increase safety, lower costs and instill a culture of continuous improvement. As one seminal patient-safety paper put it, these reviews take the approach that "every defect is a treasure."

After years of scientific research, practitioner outreach and pilot efforts, last month the National Institute of Justice launched a $1.6 million national sentinel-event demonstration project in partnership with the Bureau of Justice Assistance. This project will enable state and local sentinel-event review panels across the country to learn how to best empower jurisdictions to explore system weaknesses and generate locally tailored solutions to mitigate risk and improve system-wide performance.

In Milwaukee, an offender committed murder while released on supervision. In Seattle, questions remained over how a deadly police encounter unfolded. In New York City, fatigued officers made questionable decisions during a routine traffic stop. We can agree that these scenarios reflect system failings. However, the criminal justice system lacks a mechanism to examine these events and effectively prevent their recurrence.

When a significant negative outcome, or "sentinel event," happens in the criminal-justice system, it is rarely the result of a single actor or mistake. Rather, many small misjudgments, oversights and other errors compound to create a context in which a death in custody, a wounded police officer, a failure to provide sufficient probationary supervision or other negative event can occur.

Traditionally, the American criminal-justice system has taken a "bad apple" approach to error that assigns blame after a negative event. Although focusing on individual performance is appropriate in some instances, this approach fails to address the multiple system flaws that may have contributed to a problem. Errors are often caused by many individuals making decisions based on what they see as the best course of action in a given set of circumstances. Often, systems have set up these front-line actors to fail. If we merely punish a single individual without examining larger systemic issues, we miss a crucial opportunity to learn from error and prevent future negative outcomes.

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Shifting the criminal-justice culture away from blame and toward safety and improvement is the goal of the National Institute of Justice's Sentinel Events Initiative, which mobilizes a system-oriented approach to error. This is not a "one-size-fits-all-jurisdictions" federal effort. Rather, the Sentinel Events Initiative supports the local development of a review process in which all actors -- law-enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, victims, advocates and others -- conduct a forward-looking review of a sentinel event to identify and mend contributing system weaknesses.

Rather than simply assigning blame, these reviews ask the question, "How can we keep this from happening again?" Reviews have been implemented to examine the near-miss prosecution of a father wrongly accused, but then cleared, of murder in Illinois; a homicide committed by a minor under supervision in Milwaukee; and wrongful-conviction cases in New York City.

Although it is impossible to put a price tag on justice-system failings, scattered studies give a sense of the magnitude of the cost to taxpayers. Texas, which has paid more than $93 million in compensation, has one of the most generous compensation statutes for wrongfully convicted individuals, allowing a lump-sum payment equal to $80,000 for each year an individual was wrongfully incarcerated as well as monthly annuity payments. Illinois has spent more than $250 million on wrongful convictions, including $156 million for legal settlements. In addressing factors that will eliminate the need for future compensation and lawsuits, sentinel-event reviews can help mitigate these costs, as well as the unquantifiable impact on the lives of the wrongfully convicted, the toll sentinel events can take on officer welfare, and the danger of the real perpetrators walking free.

The Sentinel Events Initiative draws inspiration from medicine and aviation, which have used these reviews to increase safety, lower costs and instill a culture of continuous improvement. As one seminal patient-safety paper put it, these reviews take the approach that "every defect is a treasure."

After years of scientific research, practitioner outreach and pilot efforts, last month the National Institute of Justice launched a $1.6 million national sentinel-event demonstration project in partnership with the Bureau of Justice Assistance. This project will enable state and local sentinel-event review panels across the country to learn how to best empower jurisdictions to explore system weaknesses and generate locally tailored solutions to mitigate risk and improve system-wide performance.

In viewing negative outcomes as opportunities for learning, local policy influencers can shift the focus of the criminal-justice system away from blame and toward safety and system improvement. In doing so, they have a genuine opportunity reduce risk, save taxpayer money, earn public trust and improve the future administration of justice.

The findings and conclusions in this commentary are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

James Doyle | Contributor | 1jamesdoyle@gmail.com 
Rianna P. Starheim | Contributor | Rianna.Starheim@ojp.usdoj.gov