Certain police and government practices have been found to contribute to wrongful convictions. Eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, crime lab errors and other factors have led to wrongful convictions nationwide that were later overturned by DNA. While some states have laws or court rulings governing these practices, they are often decided locally (by police departments and sheriff’s departments, for example). Many jurisdictions have already implemented policies and procedures that can prevent wrongful convictions and help determine the truth in post-conviction cases. You can find out what the practices are in your community – and help make sure that policies and procedures are in place to prevent wrongful convictions.
There are some simple ways to figure out practices in your state, county or town. By finding out what your jurisdiction is doing, you can clearly signal to decision-makers that their constituents care about these issues and are engaged in their improvement.
The Innocence Project prioritizes the following issues in our work to exonerate innocent prisoners and prevent wrongful convictions:
- Eyewitness identification procedures
- Recording of custodial interrogations
- Preservation of evidence
- Standards and accountability at state and local crime labs
- Crime labs workloads and funding
To determine policies and procedures in your own community, you’ll need to get in touch with your local and state entities. While every local jurisdiction is different, many of them operate similarly. To that end, here are some steps to get started:
- You can call your local police department, county sheriff’s office or local crime lab director – and simply ask them what their policies are vis-à-vis each of the issues above. (For example, “Do you electronically record all custodial interrogations?” or “What is your practice for preserving evidence after someone has been convicted?” or “How are lineups and other identification procedures conducted?”)
- Explain that you are calling simply as a member of the community – not on behalf of any organizations or entities – and that you have learned that local practices can help prevent wrongful convictions or help determine the truth post-conviction, so you are calling to inquire about local procedures.
- Offer to send follow-up information (which you can print from the Innocence Project’s website or others) on practices that have proven effective in other jurisdictions.
- States generally have a number of agencies dedicated to criminal justice policy and enforcement. In your state, you may find a Department of Criminal Justice Services or a Department of Public Safety. You can call them and ask for the same information you would request of a local law enforcement agency; at the state entity, you can ask for statewide guidelines and/or an articulation of local procedures and practices. Since state agencies often have written policies or guidelines, you should ask for any documentation they can provide.
- If you learn that policies and procedures are not in place to help prevent wrongful convictions, you can ask what the process is for revisiting these decisions and implementing practices based on what scientific research and practical experience shows can help prevent wrongful convictions.
Sometimes, government entities require you to make requests for documents in writing. Every state has a “freedom of information” law, under which you can make requests for the relevant documents. Unless government offices have specific reasons to withhold the documents from you, they have to provide you with copies of them. To draft a request for documents, we suggest you use an online freedom of information request generator provided by the Student Press Law Center.
and follow the simple instructions.
However you pursue information about local practices, you are helping ensure that decision-makers understand that these issues are a priority for their communities.