This is a guest post by John Terzano, The Justice Project
Health care reform may have stalled in California, but Governor Schwarzenegger still has a chance to make the state a leader in fixing a national problem: wrongful convictions. Three major criminal justice reform bills are now on the Governor’s desk. The measures are designed to safeguard against wrongful convictions by making practical changes to eyewitness identification procedures, reforming the process by which confessions are attained, and regulating the use of jailhouse snitch testimony.
With more than 200 exonerations to date in California it is critical that measures are enacted before more mistakes are made. The governor has the ability to not only protect the innocent but enhance public safety and the integrity of California’s law enforcement by signing these important bills into law, and setting a standard for the nation.
The first in this trio of vital legislation-Senate Bill 756-addresses the development of new guidelines for statewide eyewitness identification procedures.
Eyewitness identification is notably unreliable. Study after study has shown that faulty eyewitness identification is one of the most common causes of wrongful conviction. In fact, it has played a pivotal role in 75% of the cases nationwide where DNA later exonerated the person convicted. See The Justice Project’s policy review Improving Eyewitness Identification Procedures at http://www.thejusticeproject.org/solution/eyewitness-id.html for more information.
Practical changes to identification procedures like cautionary instructions to witnesses, effective use of fillers, full documentation of lineup procedures, witness statements of certainty, and double-blind administration can significantly improve the accuracy of eyewitness identifications.
In addition to this critical reform, recording custodial interrogations (Senate Bill 511) and corroborating jailhouse snitch testimony (Senate Bill 609) have been shown to help prevent wrongful convictions.
False confessions have played a significant role in wrongful convictions in California, and in approximately 20% of wrongful convictions nationwide. Because confessions are often viewed as the most powerful evidence at trial, other types of evidence that point to a defendant’s innocence might be disregarded in lieu of a confession. Decades of psychological research have demonstrated how some traditional and aggressive interrogation techniques can lead to false confessions. Senate Bill 511 will require electronic recording of interrogations in both juvenile and adult cases and will protect law enforcement from false claims of coercion or abuse by providing an objective record. For more information see The Justice Project’s policy review Electronic Recording of Custodial Interrogations at http://www.thejusticeproject.org/solution/interrogations.html
Senate Bill 609 would require corroboration for jailhouse snitch testimony, meeting one of the best practices for reforming the use of snitch testimony identified in The Justice Project’s newest release, Jailhouse Snitch Testimony: A Policy Review at http://www.thejusticeproject.org/solution/snitch/. Jailhouse snitch testimony is widely regarded as the least reliable form of evidence in the criminal justice system. Higher standards for admitting snitch testimony at trial must be put in place to protect the innocent.
Law enforcement, prosecutors, and the community will all benefit from the adoption of these three reform measures. Implementation of these bills will result in stronger prosecutions, more efficient proceedings, and more reliable outcomes in criminal cases giving the public greater confidence in the criminal justice system.
Given the many documented cases of injustice in California and across the nation, the need for improvements within the criminal justice system is especially great. The time is now for Governor Schwarzenegger to take a step forward toward criminal justice reform. We hope that he will see the benefits of these bills to California and the nation and sign them into law.
John F. Terzano is the President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to address unfairness and inaccuracy in the criminal justice system, with a focus on the capital punishment system.