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Healing from the Scars Left By the Invisible Shackles of Wrongful Conviction

A Q&A with Lara Bazelon

Chains

Exoneration doesn’t promise a happily-ever-after ending. Exonerees are devasted by the traumas of incarceration, and victims of the original crimes have to face the realization that they helped send an innocent person to prison. Lara Bazelon, journalist and Director of the Criminal Juvenile Justice and Racial Justice Clinical Programs at the University of San Francisco, has decades of experience of interviewing victims of wrongful conviction. As she writes in her book Rectify: The Power of Restorative Justice After Wrongful Conviction, “the physical shackles are gone, but invisible ones remain firmly in place.” How can they heal from the scars of these invisible shackles? What can be done about the growing problem of wrongful conviction in the US? On any given day, there are as many as 15,300 innocent people serving time in prison. Our blog editor Christian Coleman caught up with Bazelon to find out.

Christian Coleman: How widespread is the problem of wrongful conviction and how does it impact communities and individuals?

Lara Bazelon: Experts believe that the men and women who have been exonerated are only a small fraction of those who deserve to be. Many wrongful convictions remain hidden, or if known, unprovable. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, “By any reasonable accounting, there are tens of thousands of false convictions each year across the country.” A 2015 study by the University of Michigan found that 4.1 percent of those on death row were falsely convicted, and conservative estimates in non-capital cases range from two to five percent. Using these percentages, on any given day, somewhere between 15,300-61,200 innocent people are languishing behind bars.

The impact on families and communities is profound. Wrongful convictions can steal decades of an exoneree’s life, causing lasting trauma to the individual and his or her family. Exonerees miss out on crucial life experiences, whether it is having a family, having a career, being able to tend to a sick parent or even being allowed to attend a parent’s funeral. Crime victims and their families also suffer. They live for years with the solace that the perpetrator was caught, only to be retraumatized years later when they learn that a terrible mistake has been made. In cases where the victims mistakenly identified the exonerees, their anguish is compounded by guilt.

CC: What steps are being taken on the state and federal levels to prevent it?

LB: Some states have adopted reforms designed to target the underlying causes of wrongful convictions by passing laws to do away with faulty identification procedures, examine the premises of some kinds of forensic science that have proved unreliable or completely without foundation, and increase access to DNA testing. In 2016, California passed a law that makes it a felony for prosecutors to conceal or destroy exculpatory evidence if they act in bad faith. Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have laws that provide monetary compensation for exonerees. 

On the federal level, law enforcement officers are now expected to record interviews of suspects in custody and encouraged to do so with other witnesses. There is also a federal wrongful conviction compensation statute, which provides for up to $50,000 for each year of incarceration for wrongfully convicted federal prisoners and up to $100,000 per year for those on death row.  In other areas, however, reform has been slower to come. Under the Obama Administration, a National Commission on Forensic Science was established to determine which forensic sciences were reliable and which were less so. Under the Trump Administration, the Commission has been disbanded.

CC: How does restorative justice help exonerees heal from their trauma after wrongful conviction?

LB: Restorative justice is a centuries-old practice of bringing together victims, offenders, and their respective communities to address the harm inflicted by a crime and agree upon a series of measures designed to repair that harm rather than meting out punishment. Now, there is a growing movement to apply restorative justice practices in wrongful conviction cases by bringing together exonerees and the crime victims who may unwittingly have played a role in helping to convict them. Restorative justice connects isolated individuals who might otherwise shy away from one another out of fear or resentment. The kind of suffering experienced by those involved in a wrongful conviction case varies greatly but arises from a shared traumatic experience. This shared suffering means that very differently situated people can come together to heal and make sense of the catastrophe that upended their lives.

CC: True crime is growing more and more prevalent in pop culture. The hit Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer, for example, is about to start its second season. How do programs like these impact the public’s understanding of wrongful conviction?

LB: The explosion of interest in wrongful conviction cases, narrated as true crime stories in podcasts, documentaries, and other media, has begun to erode the power of traditional narrative that rewards prosecutors and police for having “a win-at-all-costs” mentality. Forty-five percent of wrongful convictions involve official misconduct. The public is now better informed about the ethical obligations of prosecutors and police and the consequences of violating these obligations. This, in turn, has led to the election of reform-minded candidates who challenge tough-on-crime incumbents by running on progressive platforms, including a commitment to revisiting wrongful conviction cases. The public is now far better educated and informed and more likely to pay attention to these down-ballot races.

 

About Lara Bazelon 

Lara Bazelon is a writer and associate professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, where she is the director of the Criminal Juvenile Justice and Racial Justice Clinics. A 2016 MacDowell Fellow and a 2017 Mesa Refuge Langeloth Fellow, she is the former director of the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent. Bazelon is also a nonresident fellow with Brandeis University’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. Her writing has appeared in the New York TimesAtlanticWashington PostPolitico, and Slate, where she is a contributing writer and has a long-running series about wrongful conviction cases. Rectify: The Power of Restorative Justice After Wrongful Conviction is her first book. Follow her on Twitter at @larabazelon and visit her website.

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