Guest View: Everyone pays when an innocent person is wrongfully convicted

Today, and every Oct. 2, is “International Wrongful Conviction Day.” According to the Innocence Network — a conglomeration of 56 U.S.-based, and 12 international, innocence organizations — this day exists to “raise awareness of the causes and remedies of wrongful conviction and to recognize the tremendous personal, social, and emotional costs of wrongful conviction for innocent people and their families.”

Tremendous costs to many, indeed. The numbers are troubling. Since 1989, 237 Illinoisans, and 2,271 individuals nationwide, have been exonerated from the most serious of wrongful convictions — murder, sexual assault, armed robbery and other high-level felonies. No one knows how many have been exonerated from “lesser” offenses, because such results are too many to track. Illinois is among the “leaders” in wrongful convictions, in close company with much larger Texas, New York and California.

Wrongful convictions are expensive to you, the taxpayer, as misconduct by government officials toward innocent people has led to hundreds of millions of dollars of civil judgments against government municipalities, as well as millions more in state compensation recoveries. For example, the judgment in the “Dixmoor Five” case was for $40 million; the “Ford Heights Four” defendants received $36 million; and so on.

The overwhelming financial costs of wrongful convictions further extends to the incarceration of innocent individuals. In Illinois, the annual cost of housing one person for one year in the Department of Corrections is $44,967. One estimate of the incarceration costs of Illinois’ 237 exonerees approaches nearly half a billion dollars. Remember, this staggering number pertains to putting innocent people in prison.

But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of wrongful convictions is that when the wrong person is convicted, the true offender remains on the streets and free to commit other violent offenses. Sadly, this scenario has played out in Illinois more than once.

Our community, through the University of Illinois Springfield, is fortunate to be the home of one of the Innocence Network’s 68 organizations. The Illinois Innocence Project at UIS is credited with 11 exonerations of innocent Illinois citizens. While IIP’s core mission is for its staff and students to identify and work on cases of plausible claims of actual innocence, its mission extends to seeking fair-minded legislation toward preventing wrongful convictions, as well education of the public, certain police agencies, attorneys, students and others, regarding the causes and potential systemic fixes regarding wrongful convictions.

In the area of legislation, the Illinois Innocence Project has recently promulgated a critical pending piece of legislation. That item is Senate Bill 1830, which pertains to “Informant Testimony.” False testimony from a jailhouse informant is a well-recognized cause of wrongful convictions. Such evidence was the primary cause of the wrongful convictions of those exonerated from Illinois’ death row in the 1990s and 2000s. SB 1830 would not eliminate the prosecution’s ability to use a jailhouse informant; rather, it would simply require prosecutors to take a few extra steps pertaining to notice, enhanced discovery, and reliability certification before the informant would be permitted to testify. Unfortunately and disappointingly, Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed this bill in July, despite the bill having zero Senate opposition and a veto-proof majority in the House. An override is being sought.

Change to criminal justice system is difficult. Public support for reforms such as SB 1830 is crucial. On this “International Wrongful Conviction Day,” the Illinois Innocence Project urges area citizens to familiarize themselves with the issues that pertain to wrongful convictions, and to consider how their support could make a difference for an incarcerated person who is actually innocent.

John J. Hanlon is executive director of the Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois Springfield.

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Region: Springfield,Feeds,Opinion,Region: Central,City: Springfield

via Opinion – The State Journal-Register

October 3, 2018 at 02:07AM

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