Ending Wrongful Convictions will take more than piecemeal reform.
Letter to the Editor by Andrea Lyon
The fact that so many people are wrongfully convicted
because of police misconduct in Illinois and other states
illuminates a failure of larger dimensions.
In an editorial last week, the board rightfully pointed out that prisoners released
from incarceration need support systems if they are to return to productive lives.
Half of Americans have seen a family member incarcerated, and three in four
incarcerated Americans rely on an under-funded, under-resourced public defender
system that simply cannot meet the demands of real advocacy.
To date, the National Registry of Exonerations reports there have been 3,303 exonerations, representing more than 28,450 years lost. Each exoneration means an innocent person was imprisoned, while the real criminal remained in our communities.
The fact that so many people are wrongfully convicted because of police misconduct in Illinois and other states illuminates a failure of larger dimensions. While both red and blue states are passing criminal justice reforms to address the size and cost of our system, those state reforms create an uneven topography that, unfortunately, does not meet the ends of justice.
Nor does it address the systemic problems that cost taxpayers $1.82 billion for a system that does not keep us safe. These well-meaning but partial reform measures will not change the institutional failures that have made the United States the largest jailer in the world.
For a number of years, I and an alliance of others in my profession have suggested we need a defender general, an independent justice function at the level of the attorney general and solicitor general. The goal is to address three areas: funding, by incentivizing states to equitably fund public defense, collect data and create quality metrics; advocacy, by representing defense interests in the U.S. Supreme Court, litigating Sixth Amendment (rights of criminal defendants) violations by state and local actors and monitoring consent decrees; and policy, by modeling best practices, informing lawmakers and disseminating public defense data and supporting training, standards and innovations.
A top desire for Americans is not mere safety — it is for true justice. We can do better.
Andrea D. Lyon, criminal defense and death penalty lawyer, author of Fixing Legal Injustice in America: The Case for a Defender General of the US