By Andrew Z. Giacalone
The dramatic rise in exonerations across the United States paints a “troubling picture” of the American criminal justice system and highlights an urgent need for solutions to the problem of wrongful conviction, former United States Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has warned.
In an op-ed published in
, the former Bush administration official is calling for forensic science reform, equitable access to lawyers regardless of income and tougher oversight of police and prosecutors. He also declares that legislators must remain “committed to finding solutions to this serious problem if we hope to preserve trust in our criminal justice system.”
“Even one mistake is one too many and a miscarriage of justice for the individual wrongly incarcerated,” affirms Gonzales. “We owe it to the men and women we have put in prison for crimes they did not commit. And we owe it to the victims.”
According to the National Registry for Exonerations’ latest
, released last week, 2015 saw an ever rising number of nationwide exonerations, with 149 wrongfully convicted people freed in 29 states, the District of Columbia, federal courts and Guam. The number constitutes a new record.
As a result, Gonzales is now urging lawmakers to break a “
Senate turf battle
” and to usher in a series of forensic science reforms aimed at mandating uniform standards and accreditation for crime labs. The move, he hopes, would boost the training and education of researchers and crime scene technicians while providing “meaningful reliability testing to explain the limits of these disciplines.”
The former attorney general also acknowledges that wrongful convictions do not stem from bad forensic science alone. In his op-ed, Gonzalez affirms what the
has long stated, that the causes of wrongful conviction are multifaceted and include eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, false testimony by criminal informants, inadequate defense and government misconduct.
“Carelessness and mistakes [by law enforcement] can be reduced with additional training, supervision and discipline,” continues Gonzales. “If an officer or prosecutor intentionally does something wrong, that person should be held accountable. No responsible law enforcement official wants to serve with those who do not abide by the law, but the current disciplinary system is not doing enough.”
The income of a defendant can also affect whether someone is wrongfully convicted or not, asserts Gonzalez. Addressing money’s “outsized role” in the criminal justice system, he notes that people without means are often forced to
to crimes they did not commit because they cannot afford the alternative.
“They cannot wait for a court-appointed lawyer because spending time in jail can cost their job,” concludes Gonzales. “If we are truly serious about equal justice under the law, we need to find a way for people to have access to counsel earlier in the process.”