Innocence Project Details Connections between Wrongful Convictions and Police Accountability


By Michael Wheeler

NEW YORK, NY – Since the Ferguson shooting in 2014, activists have made the point again and again: the American criminal justice system is broken.

How to fix it, however, remains a topic for huge debate.

In August of last year, during a summer of unrest after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police last May, the Innocence Project, an organization committed to defending wrongfully convicted suspects and reforming the criminal justice system, laid out a brief summary of the ways in which protections for police stand in the way of justice.

Many of these suggestions point to deep flaws in the methodology of policing. For instance, the ways in which police identify suspects have deep racial biases.

The use of databases and algorithmic policing reduces suspects to outcomes of a model based on data which, in many cases, are not transparent.

Taken together with policies that encourage officers to arrest en masse in order to meet specific goals—which are frequently racially based, more suspects are spit out by these models, implying that more innocent people are also getting caught up in the system, said the Innocence Project.

As more suspects are created as a result of these processes, prosecutors have all the power for how to deal with them once they enter police custody, the group said.

During last summer’s protests, activists pointed to the power held by prosecutors to decide how to charge suspects, thus making it easier for them to threaten a suspect with a long sentence if they were not to agree to plead guilty in exchange for a shorter sentence.

Biases in favor of conviction extend also to criminal forensics labs, almost half of which are funded in part by the number of convictions to which they contribute, as opposed to merely the productivity of the lab.

These two forces back innocent suspects into a corner, with many taking a plea deal in order to avoid the inherent risk of a jury trial and a long sentence.

According to the Innocence Project, some 10 percent of nationwide convictions which are later shown to have been incorrect through DNA evidence, had a suspect enter a guilty plea at some point.

They estimate an additional number for non-violent crimes, as the lesser consequences lower the chances of appeal, making it that far into the system, said the Innocence Project, adding while the criminal justice system disadvantages the accused, it is tilted in favor of officers who commit misdeeds. About half of states allow the disciplinary records of police to remain confidential, and the power of some police unions ensures that officers are well protected.

Some officers are able to view the testimony of witnesses before they give testimony, while the appeals process, backed by a strong union, can often allow fired officers to return to their departments, said the Innocence Project.

Michael Wheeler is a junior at UC Davis, where he studies History and Economics. He is from Walnut Creek, California.

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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