Innocence Issues PDF Print E-mail

            Across the nation, 223 individuals have been exonerated through DNA testing.  Collectively, these men and women served more than 2,500 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.  In 86 of these 223 cases, the true perpetrators were identified in the process of settling claims of innocence.  Many of them had gone on to commit additional crimes while the innocent languished behind bars.

            In order to address the causes of wrongful conviction, prevent their recurrence, and mitigate further hardship for those who have successfully proven their innocence, the following issues require federal action:

1.         Reauthorization and reform of the innocence protections established in the Justice For All Act of 2004 (Public Law No: 108-405).  These protections are set to expire in 2009 and Congressional reauthorization of funding for these critical innocence programs and protections must be secured.

2.         Creation of a federal commission on the causes and remedies of wrongful conviction.

3.         Passage of S. 2421, H.R. 7021: The Wrongful Convictions Tax Relief Act.

            These exonerations have demonstrated with absolute certainty that mistaken convictions can and do happen across the country.  Without access to DNA testing and preserved evidence, however, none of these exonerations would have been possible. It is therefore critically important that incentives and programs that make testing possible, such as those included in the Justice For All Act, continue to be funded and enforced.

            It is not enough, however, to ensure that those wrongfully convicted men and women who remain in prison have the tools with which to prove their innocence.  These compelling cases of wrongful convictions demand that all who care about justice conscientiously review what went wrong in the process to lead fact finders to believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the exonerated person was, in fact, guilty of the crime.  Those exonerated by DNA testing are not, after all, the only people who have been wrongfully convicted in recent decades.  For every case that involves DNA, there are thousands that do not.  Reviewing the cases of those for whom DNA has proven innocence allows us to pinpoint weaknesses in our justice system that, if addressed, can help reduce the number of wrongful convictions.

            Learning from wrongful convictions does not "just" protect the innocent; it also enhances the accuracy of our criminal investigations.  Every time an innocent person is wrongfully convicted, the real perpetrators of these serious crimes elude justice, and public safety is put at risk.  A federal commission should be established to examine the causes of wrongful convictions and to determine how to strengthen the justice system by avoiding wrongful convictions and convicting the guilty.

            Just as it is important to learn from wrongful convictions and seek to prevent them, it is also imperative that those men and women who suffered wrongful conviction and imprisonment are not wrongfully taxed by the federal government when they are compensated for that harm.  Such compensation is critical to the ability of such persons to rebuild their lives in earnest.  Men and women who have been wrongfully convicted face myriad, significant challenges to successfully returning to the community from which they were wrongfully removed.  Upon their release from prison these individuals deserve, at minimum, the removal of avoidable financial roadblocks in their efforts to begin their lives anew.

            The unique horrors suffered by the 223 men and women who have spent an average of 12 years behind bars for crimes they did not commit compel action.  Otherwise, their lost years-and the relationships, professional development and life experiences that they lost with them-will have been in vain.



Last Updated on Wednesday, 05 November 2008 23:24
For more information, please read about us or contact Matthew Allee at the Constitution Project, 202-580-6922.