Tuesday, June 05, 2012

More on the implications of the national registry of wrongful convictions

The following editorial was published by the Virginian-Pilot on June 4, 2012.

Past time for justice reform

It is no secret that flaws exist in this nation's criminal justice system. As in all human endeavors, there is a margin of error.

The margin, however, may be greater than most Americans are willing to accept when it comes to meting out punishment in the name of justice. New research suggests that lawmakers, who last year cast aside a proposal to reform the nation's criminal justice system, ought to reconsider.

The reforms, proposed by outgoing Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, would have established a blue-ribbon commission to identify ways to make the system more efficient, effective and just.

As Webb repeatedly noted, the United States accounts for 5 percent of the world's people but 25 percent of the world's reported prison population. Programs aimed at rehabilitation - and reducing recidivism - aren't adequately developed or supported.

The nation's endless war on drugs has led to a 1,200 percent increase in inmates convicted of drug offenses in the past 30 years. And even with more people locked up, a majority of Americans report feeling less safe.

The proposed commission would have offered recommendations, which states and localities could have considered for adoption. It was roundly supported by law enforcement and civil rights groups before it was demagogued in the Senate and defeated.

A recent study by two universities underscores yet another reason for reform: The prevalence of mistakes in investigations and trials.

The University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law have compiled a first-of-its-kind national database of people wrongfully convicted of serious crimes since 1989. The researchers contend they've found more than 2,000 people wrongfully convicted, and they've listed details for about 873. Nearly half were imprisoned on murder charges.

Twenty-five are from Virginia.

Some were convicted of lesser charges:

Christopher Prince of Culpeper, convicted of burglary, was exonerated after victims admitted lying to investigators. Some were freed by happenstance: Arthur Lee Whitfield and Julius Ruffin, both of Norfolk, were both cleared of sexual assault convictions after DNA testing of evidence preserved by a state forensic scientist who broke protocol.

Because they were publicized, those cases were relatively easy to compile for the database. Scores of others likely exist.

"We know that there are many more that we haven't found," said Samuel Gross, a Michigan professor and editor of the National Registry of Exonerations.

From a purely financial perspective, the database - and the findings cited by Webb - suggest taxpayers aren't getting nearly the return they deserve on the billions spent to fight crime every year. From a civic perspective, they demonstrate a failure of policies to adhere to justice rather than identifying criminals and racking up convictions.

And until Americans demand change, nothing will.

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