(July 20, 2009) Newly created innocence commissions in New York and Texas will join a growing list of state commissions working to prevent future injustice by learning from previous mistakes. Both states have high numbers of wrongful convictions; 38 Texans and 24 New York State residents have been proven innocent through DNA testing after serving years or decades in prison.
Six other states — California, Illinois, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Connecticut — have already established Innocence Commissions, also known as Criminal Justice Reform Commissions. Some of these state groups have already begun to recommend and help implement polices that improve eyewitness identification, reduce the prevalence of false confessions, establish statewide forensic oversight and more.
The Illinois Governor’s Commission on Capital Punishment issued 85 recommendations, all of which passed the Legislature in 2003. Since then, Illinois has created a second commission that will review wrongful convictions in non-capital DNA exoneration cases and submit a report by the end of 2010. The North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission’s recommendations for improvements to eyewitness identification procedures have been adopted as law and are now mandated statewide. In Wisconsin, the recommendations of the Criminal Justice Reform Package led to improvements in the preservation of biological evidence, more reliable eyewitness identification procedures and requirements that law enforcement agencies record custodial interrogations.
Like other innocence commissions, the newly formed New York Justice Task Force is comprised of a range of criminal justice stakeholders—judges, legislators, law enforcement officials and others—that will recommend changes to police and court procedures as well as training for lawyers, jurists and police. Unlike other innocence commissions, the Justice Task Force will be a permanent entity that will also monitor how the recommended reforms are working after they are implemented.
The Justice Task Force will build on the work of the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) Task Force, which submitted its final report in April with proposals regarding evidence preservation, jailhouse informant testimony, eyewitness identification procedures, compensation for the wrongfully convicted and more. The group heard testimony from Innocence Project Co-Directors Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld as well as a number of people who have been exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing.
Also this year, the Texas Legislature passed a bill establishing the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions, named for a man who was posthumously exonerated through DNA testing. The panel will assist the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense, a pre-existing group, in conducting a study on the prevention of wrongful convictions in the state. The commission will submit a report at the beginning of 2011. Meanwhile, the Texas Criminal Justice Integrity Unit, formed by the state Court of Criminal Appeals in 2008, and comprised of members such as District Attorney Craig Watkins and Senator Rodney Ellis, is looking broadly at improving the state criminal justice system through education, training and legislative reform.
Through the work of these commissions, these eight states have become national leaders in criminal justice reform. Other recent efforts to form commissions have been initiated in Arizona, Indiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee, among others.