Up to 5,700 Wrongful Convictions in California, Experts Estimate
By Robert J Hansen
California Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office announced the first-ever Post-Conviction Justice Unit (PCJU), to conduct investigations and reviews aimed at resolving wrongful or improper criminal convictions, last Friday.
“Whether it’s as a result of bias, changes in forensics, or any other issue, our system is not foolproof and we must make every effort to ensure the integrity of prosecutions in our state,” it represents a critical step forward for further fostering a culture of integrity and transparency that supports trust in the law.”
PCJU will also work to identify cases that may be suitable for potential resentencing and initially staffed by two Deputy Attorneys General within the Criminal Law Division who will build on existing resources within the DOJ.
Experts estimate as many as 5,700 could be eligible for review, according to Courthouse reporting. That means that six percent of people currently in a California prison are possibly wrongly convicted.
California prosecutors have been creating Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs) to look at cases to correct erroneous convictions and exonerate innocent people for more than a decade.
The Yolo County District Attorney’s Office has had a Conviction and Sentencing Review Unit since 2014, according to its website.
Yolo County data on overturned wrongful convictions since 2019. (Yolo County DA)
There have been 15 successful convictions overturned since 2019, the majority of which involved mistaken identity or were related to consequences of immigration, according to the DA.
The total number of successful cases resentenced since 2014 has yet to be provided by the district attorney’s office.
The California County Resentencing Pilot Program was signed into law in July 2021. It provides $18 million to nine California counties to engage in Prosecutor-Initiated Resentencing (PIR).
The funds are to be used exclusively for the three-year program that begins on September 1, 2021, and ends on September 1, 2024.
“When I first conceptualized this law, I never imagined that California would invest millions of dollars in its implementation,” said Founder and Executive Director Hillary Blout in a press statement. “After almost three years of working very closely with DAs and community leaders across the state, I am more confident than ever that this collaborative approach will allow us to safely bring more people home from prison.”
PIR is often referred to as an expansion of conviction review to now include sentence review, according to a recent report by Hillary Blout, Founder of For The People and Jeff Reisig, Yolo County District Attorney.
“The job of the prosecutor is to strive for justice. Now, prosecutors have this unique ability to offer second chances. We should work to give people second chances when they earn them. That is part of good prosecution,” Reisig said.
As of November 2021, the state imprisoned 99,297 people and had an imprisonment rate of 335 per every 100,000 people.
When federal prisons, local jails, immigration detention facilities, juvenile justice facilities, and civil commitment centers were also included, California’s overall incarceration rate was 581 per every 100,000 people.
“I have prosecuted thousands of cases. This is the right thing to do no matter what side of the aisle you fall on,” Reisig said. “If people go to prison for a very long time and it doesn’t seem just, or they’ve done a great job at rehabilitating themselves, why wouldn’t we as prosecutors consider that? It’s just the right thing to do.”
As of November 2021, more than 100 people had been released in California as a result of PIR, according to a report from For the People.
California has 58 counties but only nine counties participate.
The nine counties are Los Angeles, Santa Clara, San Francisco, Riverside, Contra Costa San Diego, Yolo, Merced and Humboldt.
Because of PIR, Isaiah Love is back in San Jose as a member of his tight-knit community. The San Jose Mercury reported about Love in May 2021.
Yolo County father Andrew Aradoz was 14 when he committed his crime and James Sotero Riviera from San Diego returned home after serving 28 years of a 140-year sentence, according to the report by For the People.
Because of Andrew’s young age at the time of his life crime Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig’s Office motioned the Court in July 2020 to recall Andrew’s case and the Court agreed.
The state would have spent at least $5.3 million if Andrew had served out his life sentence for attempted murder, the report said.
A policy analyst with the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office’s Freedom Project Elliot Hosman said only 267 wrongful convictions have been overturned since 1989 in California
“In California, that means there are as many as 5,700 people whose cases await meaningful review and just as many families and communities awaiting reunification,” Hosman said.
New resentencing laws, like PIR, give DAs the power to undo disproportionate sentences and wrongful convictions.
“Yet despite millions of dollars in targeted budget allocations, very few prosecutors are referring cases for correction,” Hosman said.