Personal Accountability in the Criminal Justice System?

Popular perception of criminal justice reform often centers on wrongful convictions, as in the current fascination with the Netflix series, “Making a Murderer.” Today in the LA Times, a front page article Wrongful Convictions highlights the cost to the city of Los Angeles of civil liability for the kind of investigative and prosecutorial misconduct that drives most such convictions, with the city paying millions of dollars to settle lawsuits in the cases of two men convicted and imprisoned when detectives and prosecutors were aware of, and hid, exculpatory evidence. In the case of one man, Bruce Lisker, the detective even wrote a letter to the parole board trying to block Mr. Lisker’s release, years after the crime, in which the detective lied about finding “additional incriminating evidence” after the trial. The point, for criminal justice reform, is that there is no personal accountability for the individuals in law enforcement who abused their authority in obtaining the wrongful convictions. Our system requires law enforcement and prosecutors to be neutral in their investigations and prosecutions, to put aside the very human characteristics of desire to succeed, to win, to be right in a hunch and only pursue the objective truth, even if does not make them look good. Most can, and do, follow this difficult path. For those who don’t, however, there is no real personal cost. As in this LA Times story, it is the county or state that pays a financial price, but there is no real legal, criminal cost for the personal abuse of authority. Fundamental change in the criminal justice system, fundamental change that will reduce wrongful convictions, will require some form of personal accountability for this type of misconduct.

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