The Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School has released the first national review of Conviction Review Units (CRUs, sometimes called Conviction Integrity Units), a growing trend in criminal justice reform. The publication, “Conviction Review Units: A National Perspective,” provides recommendations for best practices by CRUs.
Conviction Review Units are units within a district attorney’s office that exist to review plausible claims made by a convicted inmate that he or she is actually innocent of a crime. Americans have grown more aware of the number of individuals across the country who have been convicted of crimes they did not commit. As of April 18, 2016, the National Registry of Exonerations has identified 1,773 exonerees in the United States.
The recommendations in the Quattrone Center’s report will help jurisdictions with existing CRUs learn from their peers on ways to improve the operations of the Unit; help jurisdictions interested in starting a CRU consider the best structure, staffing, policies, and procedures for the Unit; and help communities advocate for high-quality CRUs that provide measurable and impactful reforms.
There are now over 25 CRUs across the United States, making them an increasingly important part of the criminal justice system’s response errors in the administration of justice. More than half of these CRUs have been created in the last two years, and because each unit has been an independent creation, there has been no guidance on how a Unit can best be constructed and operated to achieve its goals.
“It is encouraging that so many jurisdictions have declared a public commitment to conviction integrity,” said John Hollway, executive director of the Quattrone Center. “More and more DAs are accepting their role as ministers of justice. Beyond enforcing the laws, they are acknowledging the potential for human errors in the work they do, and using CRUs as part of a constant and ongoing commitment to accuracy in determinations of guilt and innocence. Our report hopes to enhance the work of these important organizations, and improve confidence in the criminal justice system.”
The report recommends that Conviction Review Units emphasize independence, flexibility, and transparency in their daily operations.
CRUs should ensure their independence by reporting directly to the District Attorney, installing leaders with firsthand prosecutorial and criminal defense experience who are respected within the jurisdiction’s criminal justice community, and including objective review participants from outside the DA’s office.
In addition, CRUs should have flexibility to deal with a wide variety of claims of innocence, providing procedural support for fact-based case reviews, reviewing each petition on its factual merits, and allowing for resubmission of a petition whenever additional credible evidence is brought to light.
Finally, CRUs should operate transparently, sharing information about its policies and procedures and decision-making criteria with the public and reporting in a regular and timely fashion on decisions made in cases that are granted review, as well as cases that may not be suitable for review.
“While I don’t believe that any CRU has embraced all of the best practices listed in the Quattrone Center’s report, it’s important that we as prosecutors share our experiences with conviction review and learn from each other, and this report provides unique insights into what is useful, and what may be difficult, in launching and running a CRU,” said Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson. Under District Attorney Thompson’s leadership, Brooklyn’s CRU has vacated the convictions of 19 people since Thompson took office in 2014.
“Good faith CRUs that operate with independence, flexibility, and transparency,” the report states, “can build bridges across what is too often a bitter ideological divide between prosecutors and defense counsel, and between law enforcement and the communities they serve, and restore the community’s faith that each part of the system is operating to ensure that perpetrators of crime — and only perpetrators of crime — are held accountable for their acts in ways that preserve the constitutional freedoms of all.”
The Quattrone Center is a national research and policy hub created to catalyze long term structural improvements to the U.S. criminal justice system. The center takes an interdisciplinary, data-driven, scientific approach to identifying and analyzing the most crucial problems in the justice system, and proposing solutions that improve its fairness for the long term benefit of society. Its research and programs are independent and unbiased, engaging all parties — academia, judiciary, law enforcement, defense and prosecution, legislative, forensic and social scientists, media, and other participants — required to effect substantial change for the better.