Why Every Prosecutor’s Office Needs a Conviction Integrity Unit, Part 3: The Place of CIUs in Criminal Justice Reform

Posted: October 31, 2012 in Conviction Integrity Unit, Wrongful Convictions
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When I explain conviction integrity units (CIUs) — units lawyers in a prosecutor’s office whose job is to examine past convictions when real claims of actual innocence surface — most people understand that CIUs make sense.  They create an institutional process to investigate and resolve questions about past cases in which the system may have convicted the wrong person.  That in itself is a good thing.

In Failed Evidence, I make a further argument: CIUs are a necessary ingredient if we are to change law enforcement practices to reflect the best science we have.  Here’s why.

For more than two decades, the starting point of reform in the criminal justice system has been the wrongful convictions uncovered through DNA testing.  These cases, which now number three hundred, exposed many of the weaknesses in our traditional police practices.  Finding and righting these miscarriages of justice has been one of the major issues for  criminal justice reformers.  And rightly so: a justice system that tolerates these kinds of catastrophic mistakes lacks integrity and will eventually lose public confidence.

These efforts must, of course, continue.  But we also need to energize efforts to change the practices that lead to these mistakes.  To make those changes happen, we need the involvement not just of advocates for the wrongfully convicted, but also of police and prosecutors themselves.  Sometimes, those folks are reluctant to become involved if they think reform efforts will be about blaming them and pointing out their mistakes.  Thus one of the keys to success is to focus the effort on reforms going forward — how do we prevent mistakes in the future? — while at the same time, creating a regular way for the mistakes of the past to be confronted and corrected.

That last part, of course, is where CIUs come in.  If every prosecutor’s office had a CIU, cases of possible wrongful convictions would be referred to that unit in the regular course of business.  It would become part of the institutional infrastructure — one of many standard operating procedures.  Citizens would have confidence that these kinds of injustices would be dealt with.  And that would, I hope, free up our criminal justice leaders to pursue the question of how we do better as we go forward.

This isn’t a perfect solution, and in an upcoming post I’ll address a couple of very perceptive comments I’ve already received criticizing this approach.  But I do think it would be a substantial advance over what we have now.

  1. Dave Simmons says:

    The analogy of a CIU being compared to an Internal Affairs division within an agency may on the surface appear to be similar in purpose but are far different in the scope and effect that it has to the community as a whole. Internal Affairs deals with integrity within an agency. A CIU would deal with not only any agency involved in an investigation, but more importantly with the most powerful law enforcer in any community, the District Attorney. Since the DA is the highest authority and holds exclusive immunity, the oversight of all agencies within it’s power and authority is so important. CIU not only inspects the integrity of all these agencies, it helps to protect its citizens from this ultimate power and the civil liabilities that are created from any misconduct that becomes exposed. The work of DA Craig Watkins in Texas is exemplary, but unfortunately not the norm in this country. The business of politics, conviction stats and feeding the profits of our growing prison system will keep our Innocence Projects busy for a long time!

    • John Pearson says:

      Dave, you make good points. I agree that jurisdictions where CIUs have been established are better served than jurisdictions where they have not been established. My prinicpal concern focusses on whether CIUs are sufficiently independent and seen to be independent from the DA’s office to effectively respond to particularly difficult cases. Independent counsel legislation seeks to insulate “difficult” investigations and prosecutions from political interference and provide both the reality and perception of independence and objectivity. I believe there is a danger with CIUs, as with IA or professional standards branches, that many members of the public will feel that organizations can’t be trusted to “police” themselves. In my experience, this is not fair because the IA people I have worked with have conducted excellent investigations – often under difficult circumstances. The problem is that justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done. All this said, I’m from Canada and we don’t have CIUs. It is an issue I will raise with colleagues.

  2. Anthony Gonzalez says:

    Would not this office also be in charge of reviewing cases in which defendants were overcharged and then forced to plea to a lesser charge or felony which has lifetime collateral consequence.

    • A CIU might be given the task of looking at overcharging leading to “forced” pleas, but that is usually not part of what they do. Rather, they just examine cases in which there is a legitimate claim of innocence. The overcharging-leading-to-pleas issue is a real one, but it is very difficult to untangle. Usually, in those cases we are not talking about an innocent person forced to plead and admit to something he/she did not do, but instead pleading to something more severe than he/she might have without the overcharging.

  3. […] gotten some great comments on my posts (here’s the last one) on Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs) for prosecutor’s offices.  One group of these comments […]

  4. John, your comments are quite astute, and especially interesting coming from a CJ system that is similar to ours, but of course not the same. In my opinion, you are quite correct that having elected prosecutors leads to pressures, political and otherwise, that can distort the system. A whole section of Chapter Five of my book Failed Evidence is devoted to exactly that point.
    Thanks very much for your interest and insights.

  5. John Pearson says:

    You are shining light on an extremely important issue. As you point out, a multitude of factors can lead to a miscarriage of justice – poor investigations, bad science, in custody informants, incompetent defence counsel and prosecutors with tunnel vision or “noble cause” corruption, etc. In Canada we do not have elected prosecutors at any level. Do you think “public pressure” is more of a problem for a prosecutor who has to be concerned about re-election? I do not want to leave the impression that we have had no wrongful convictions in Canada. Quite to the contrary. One approach that might “nip the problem in the bud” would be to assign a member of the prosecution team to focus on weaknesses in the prosecution case, strengths in the defence case and issues that could give rise to a wrongful conviction. This would make for a stronger prosecution case and hopefully might detect potential miscarriages.

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