Imprisoning the Innocent

IMPRISONING THE INNOCENT….Jonathan Turley has a good op-ed in the LA Times today about people serving long prison sentences for crimes they didn’t commit:

Steven Toney was one such recent case. When Toney was arrested in Missouri in 1983 for a bad check, he was confident he could prove his innocence and have the charge dropped. Indeed, it was dropped. However, while Toney was being held, he was asked to stand in a lineup in a rape case. The victim picked him out despite the lack of any evidence connecting him to the crime. Toney was offered a deal but he refused. He insisted he was innocent and decided to fight the charge. He was convicted.

Although prosecutors fought his efforts to have a privately funded DNA test, Toney was finally exonerated after almost 14 years in prison. He is now 55, with much of his life taken away from him and no resources to build a future on what is left. Missouri offers no compensation to wrongly convicted people.

Turley is right that this is a gross miscarriage of justice. An innocent person who has years of his life stolen because of sloppy or overzealous prosecution deserves substantial compensation.

Turley is also right that much of this problem can be traced back to prosecutors whose only goal is a high conviction rate. Unfortunately, he’s probably wrong to think that compensating the innocent will deter these prosecutors, since most of them are long gone by the time their victims’ innocence is established.

Compensation is a worthwhile goal, and a good way to use free market incentives to produce better behavior by the state. But it’s not enough. Prosecutors need to be held to higher standards both by judges and by the public they are supposed to serve, with discipline readily available in cases of misconduct. Until that happens, prosecutors will continue to care more about a gleaming conviction rate than they do about whether they’re really trying the right person.

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