The best way to get what you want is to ask for it. Here is my short criminal justice wish list (I don’t want to be greedy), just in time for the December holidays but also valid through 2017:
Exoneree compensation: This is addressed to Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, House Speaker Michael Madigan, and Senate President John Cullerton. We have a compensation law in Illinois, but for the last year and a half, you all have been unable to agree on a budget—meaning wrongful incarceration awards have not been paid. Stop your bickering long enough to compensate the wrongly convicted! (For more on the human costs, see this Chicago Tribune article.)
Conviction Integrity Unit: This one is for newly elected Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. You have pledged to upgrade your office’s conviction integrity unit. I believe you; I think this wish will be granted. To make your job easier, here is the Quattrone Center’s paper on best practices for conviction review units. The essential recommendations are at the very beginning. Use it is a blueprint.
Jury instruction on eyewitness testimony: Illinois Pattern Jury Instruction (Criminal) 3.15, which outlines how jurors should consider identification testimony, is badly outdated. For heaven’s sake, it is based on a 40-year-old opinion predating our current understanding of factors affecting eyewitness reliability. The Committee on Jury Instructions in Criminal Cases should take a lesson from New Jersey or another enlightened state and give jurors better tools to evaluate eyewitness testimony.
Open file discovery: Individual State’s Attorneys, you can adopt this as your office’s policy. Illinois Supreme Court Rules Committee, you should incorporate this into the discovery rules. What exactly does open file discovery mean? Only that prosecutors turn over their entire investigative file to the defense, except sensitive information withheld with court approval. Better prepared defense attorneys mean fewer wrongful convictions. If Texas can adopt open file discovery, so can everyone else.
Address racial bias: This last one is for everyone, including me. Conscious, implicit, systemic . . . however we categorize it, racial bias is the most pressing challenge facing our criminal justice system. There is no easy fix, but we cannot begin to solve the problem unless we are willing to name it and admit it exists—and too many actors in the system still refuse to concede the role racism plays in determining who is prosecuted, convicted, and over-sentenced. To put it another way, in the immortal words of SNL’s Kenan Thompson: “Take it one step at a time. Identify the problem. FIX IT!”
Let’s meet up again, same time, next year, and see how much of my wish list was fulfilled. Happy holidays!