In the last few years, an awareness seems to be growing in our society for those who are wrongfully convicted and a support for the exoneration of those people. Wrongful conviction stories are showing up more and more frequently in the media across television, movies, and even podcasts as public interest grows (you can read more about some of those here). Over the past few decades, as well, it appears that public opinion is shifting on the way we view crime and punishment as a society, seeming to favor rehabilitation over more punitive measures and harsh mandatory sentences. As this cultural shift grows, we are now seeing support coming from an unusual source: prosecutors.
Typically, the goal of a prosecutor is to get as many guilty verdicts as possible, because that is just their job. But, it appears that a new generation of prosecutors have come along that are placing a greater priority on the quality of their convictions. Across the country, more than 30 district attorneys have created conviction integrity units. A conviction integrity unit is a unit established within a prosecutorial office that serves to go through and investigate the past cases of that office in search of wrongful convictions. The reasons for these wrongful convictions can be intentional malfeasance by the prosecutors or the police, but it can also include bad forensic science or flaws in the investigation.
The conviction integrity unit created within the Brooklyn district attorney’s office had massive success since its establishment in 2011. In just a short amount of time under Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson’s leadership, his unit has been able to overturn over 19 convictions since he took office in 2014. It has become a national leader in exonerations, particularly for murder convictions. This number includes Vanessa Gathers, the first female to be exonerated by this unit. Gathers is one of a number of defendants accusing retired NYPD detective Louis Scarcella of using tactics to extract false confessions from suspects. She has finally had her name cleared after serving 10 years in prison and 5 more on parole for a manslaughter conviction that she was innocent of.
Despite the very quickly growing success of these units, there is still a long way to go before a real dent is made in the number of inmates wrongfully incarcerated throughout the country. Only about 30 district attorney’s offices of the few thousand nationwide have created these units. That being said, these have been a huge and very positive step in the right direction. Changing the culture of the way we view wrongful convictions, especially by those in powerful positions inside prosecutorial offices, gives hope for less injustice moving forward.
One issue not yet being tackled by these units, however, is addressing those cases in which the conviction was valid but the punishment might not be. This is a much more daunting task to address for prosecutors but it is an idea that would likely render much public support. Philadelphia is likely to soon create the first sentence review program in our nation’s history. A sentence review unit would work similarly to conviction integrity units but would instead evaluate if the punishment was fair. New Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner is making plans with his staff to create such a unit. Numerous other district attorneys across the country are also working with an organization called Fair and Just Prosecution to create their own units as well.
While this task is a lot easier said than done, moves are being made in the right direction to help repair the important flaws in our system. These new progressive prosecutors are starting the important conversations about what success and justice should look like within our nations prosecutorial offices. Raising the integrity of these office and their convictions serves to lessen time spent behind bars by innocent people. It can also serve to find those true assailants left on the streets before they offend and cause harm to anyone again. These units can educate prosecutors and the public alike to raise their awareness on where they might have gone wrong in the past so that these mistakes can be learned from and the tragedies of wrongful convictions can be minimized.