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.