Reforms would reduce number of wrongful convictions

As state Rep. Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago, points out, “Chicago, Cook County and the state of Illinois are the wrongful conviction capital of America.”

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The Illinois State Capitol.

Seth Perlman/AP

The many lawyers who labor in the trenches at innocence projects around the state have seen numerous examples of cases going off the rails, landing innocent people in prison for years.

A legislative package of police and criminal reforms awaiting Gov. J.B Pritzker’s signature would do a lot to reduce the number of wrongful arrests, prosecutions and convictions. We look forward to the measures becoming law.

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Although the legislation has been criticized in some quarters, “This bill will help prevent innocent people from going to prison,” John J. Hanlon, executive director of the Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois Springfield, told us on Monday.

That’s no small consideration at a time when, as state Rep. Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago, points out, “Chicago, Cook County and the state of Illinois are the wrongful conviction capital of America.”

In a huge bill like this, which also addresses other issues besides wrongful convictions, we would expect some provisions will have to be tweaked in the future. That’s often how major legislation works. But many of the items in the bill are worthwhile because they would prevent miscarriages of justice.

Among them are:

  • Allowing people who are arrested or brought in for questioning permission to use the phone before being interrogated by police could reduce the number of false confessions, a major source of wrongful convictions.
  • Removing the requirement that people sign an affidavit before making a complaint about police misconduct — a big deterrent to speaking up — would more quickly alert police to patterns of misbehavior. So would new requirements to collect data about use of force, training all police to the same use-of-force standard and having police throughout the state wear body cameras.
  • The bill also would enhance police training requirements. Many of the cases in which individuals were wrongfully convicted could have been avoided if police had been better trained at the start of an investigation.
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Taken together, the reforms would reduce the kind of “rush to judgment” that can lead to wrongful convictions, said Bill Clutter, executive director of the downstate nonprofit Investigating Innocence.

At a time when the rule of law has been under assault in some quarters, it’s important to make the law as fair and transparent as possible. This legislation will help get us there.

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