Commentary: A Way Forward for Criminal Justice Reform If the DA Wants It

This week, the Vanguard column, supported by information from across the country, created a bit of a stir with correspondence coming in locally.  Looking at Philadelphia as a model for criminal justice reform definitely is helping to push the envelope.

What has happened there with their Convictions Integrity Unit (CIU) is interesting for a few reasons.  First, they are using Innocence Project attorneys to staff the DA’s Convictions Integrity Unit as a stronger means by which to ensure that factually innocent people are not wrongfully incarcerated.

But the program is going further and they are expanding the scope of the unit to not only review cases of possible innocence, but also of excessive sentencing.  That is certainly a different task and one by which it might not be as clear a legal mechanism to have a court review.

This past election saw the debate over whether the current DA was progressive enough in terms of criminal justice reforms, with the DA touting his innovations and the challenger pushing the DA to go further.

Can the DA adopt a similar approach to the one taken by reformer Larry Krasner in Philadelphia?  If he were to do so, it would go a long way toward convincing even critics that the long-time DA means business as a reformer.

The Vanguard received a letter on Monday in response to the column from a strong supporter of Mr. Reisig in the last election.

The letter stated: “Instead of comparing (Reisig) to Phila.’s Krasner, a more accurate comparison would be to Santa Clara County DA Rosen.   Rosen wrote an excellent letter to the Enterprise in support of Reisig.”

It is important to point out that, while the Vanguard column did compare the programs in Yolo County to the proposals by Mr. Krasner, it was not meant as a point of comparison, but was instead aspirational.

Second, it is interesting that the letter mentioned Santa Clara DA Jeff Rosen.  About five years ago, the Vanguard published an extensive article on the Santa Clara County’s Conviction Integrity Unit (see: Santa Clara DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit Draws Praise From Reform Advocates).

“The reason it is so important for a District Attorney’s office to have a Conviction Integrity Unit is sometimes there’s mistakes made in the criminal justice system,” Jeff Rosen said in a 2011 interview at the Berkeley Law school. “It’s a system made up of human beings — from police officers to witnesses to prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges. And sometimes there are mistakes.”

He added, “I think that it’s very important that just because a mistake may have been made five or ten years ago and someone perhaps was wrongfully convicted or received a sentence that they should not have received, we should go back and fix that. So, I think it’s part of having an ethic in the office of sort of continuous quality improvement.”

In the 2013 article it notes that the NCIP (Northern California Innocence Project), also housed in Santa Clara, was honoring the program, along with DA Jeff Rosen and Deputy DA David Angel, with their Justice Award.

The Vanguard interviewed then-NCIP Executive Director Cookie Ridolfi and David Angel for the article.

While the Santa Clara CIU has earned praise by the very folks helping to free the innocent, the Yolo County version falls short, having only reviewed six case in four years, and taking none of them to the second level.  This despite the fact that the Vanguard has identified no less than 14 potential wrongful convictions from the past 12 years, including some being investigated by the Innocence Project.

That fits the pattern of what has happened across the nation.  Ohio Innocence Project leader Mark Godsey told the Vanguard that most of the Conviction Integrity Units are “jokes.”   But a few have been essential in uncovering unprecedented numbers of wrongful convictions.

In his book, Blind Injustice, Mark Godsey noted that just two two Conviction Integrity Units in 2015 accounted for one-third of all exonerations by themselves – in Brooklyn and Houston.

Professor Godsey in his book, which I highly recommend for its pioneering work on understanding wrongful convictions, notes that the Conviction Review Unit in the Brooklyn DA’s office, created by the late Ken Thompson, exonerated 20 inmates in just its first two years of operation.  Meanwhile, the CIU in Houston freed 42 inmates in 2015 alone.

When Mr. Krasner took over in Philadelphia he brought the director of the Houston CIU over to run his office and has now hired Carrie Wood of the Ohio Innocence Project as a staffer.

The stats are telling.  In 2015, 58 of the 149 exonerations in the US came from CIUs.  But, Professor Godsey warns that “58 exonerations came from the small group of CIUs that have proven to be effective.”  He suggested “if every major city in the United States had a CIU as effective as the ones in Brooklyn and Houston, it would be a complete game changer.”

That is the type of work we would like to see in Yolo County as well.  The Santa Clara CIU is certainty a viable model that Yolo County could follow, but Larry Krasner has taken this to another level.

Bottom line: there is a way forward here and if the Yolo DA created a robust CIU here, with the hiring of attorneys from the front lines of innocence work, it would go a long way toward establishing his reform credentials and re-assuring some of his critics that he is indeed moving in the right direction on criminal justice reforms.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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9 Comments

  1. Jim Hoch

    “But the program is going further and they are expanding the scope of the unit to not review cases of possible innocence, but also excessive sentencing.  That is certainly a different task and one by which it might not be as clear a legal mechanism to have a court review.”

    There is a clear path, it’s call an appeal, and it’s initiated by the defendant.

    1. David Greenwald

      Appeals are a path, albeit limited. For instance, an appeal cannot consider new evidence. Yolo County has a conviction integrity unit. I’m suggesting ways to make effective.

      1. David Greenwald

        Consider Jim that the average person is wrongfully incarcerated for 12 years and most people are not exonerated through the appeals system.  Do you think there is a better way?  That’s why the CIUs are coming into existence because even prosecutors believe there is a better way (see the quote from Rosen)?

        1. Jim Hoch

          David,

          You continue to conflate factual innocence with your opinion of what sentence people should receive. I quoted your reference to “excessive sentencing”. People who feel they have received an “excessive sentence” can certainly appeal. You may realize that the DA does not determine the sentence, that being the duty of the judge. Even if the judge passes a sentence above that requested by the DA that is their right and not the responsibility of the DA. Why a unit devoted to reducing the sentence for all ready convicted criminals would reside in the DA office mystifies me. The correct place for that would be in the Judicial branch and I believe they already have several programs to ensure consistent sentencing across the state.  

          Given your previous advocacy for people to commit murder without facing any punishment it’s hard to take your “excessive sentencing” seriously.

          1. David Greenwald

            “You continue to conflate factual innocence with your opinion of what sentence people should receive. ”

            I’ve merely pointed out that the Philadelphia CIU is among the first to look at excessive sentencing in addition to questions of factual innocence. There is no conflation. They are separate issues.

            Judges don’t have the ability to reduce sentences other than at sentencing. So I’m not sure of your point about the correct place. The programs that ensure consistent sentencing do not address the issues raised here.

            I’ve never advocated for people who commit murder to not face any punishment.

        2. Jim Hoch

          “Judges don’t have the ability to reduce sentences other than at sentencing. So I’m not sure of your point about the correct place.”

          DAs do not have the ability either. However sentencing is a judicial function so that is the appropriate place.

          “The programs that ensure consistent sentencing do not address the issues raised here.” If an individuals sentence is “consistent” then it cannot be “excessive”. People who commit similar crimes and have similar enhancements should receive reasonably consistent sentences. 

          “I’ve never advocated for people who commit murder to not face any punishment.” You have given people awards for facilitating this so clearly you think it is a public good. 

           

           

          1. David Greenwald

            Except that sentencing is now so bound by mandatory sentencing guidelines, that there is not much discretion for judges. DA’s have a lot more power there. But there is a good amount of discussion taking place – not here of course – about the legal path by which to address the issue of excessive charging/ sentencing.

        3. Jim Hoch

          David, I don’t see how the below makes any sense at all. If you are concerned about sentencing on a statewide basis “mandatory sentencing guidelines” then what is the point in setting up an office in the county DAs office? They don’t have anything to do with mandatory sentencing guidelines. 

          “excessive charging” While the DA can prefer charges what someone is tried for is a function of the judge in the arraignment and they are only convicted based on the jury determination. A conviction you may describe as “excessive” is two steps removed from the DA anyway. The reason you are having a hard time to find a legal pathway is that a judge agreed that the charges were reasonable and the jury convicted the defendant on these charges. As a blogger of course you think your opinion is superior to both judges and jurys however there is no “blogger override” in our legal system and a “blogger informed” office in the DAs office would not be able to create one. 

           

          “Except that sentencing is now so bound by mandatory sentencing guidelines, that there is not much discretion for judges. DA’s have a lot more power there. But there is a good amount of discussion taking place – not here of course – about the legal path by which to address the issue of excessive charging/ sentencing.”

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