Conviction Review Unit
The criminal legal system far too often gets it wrong. For some crimes, the wrongful conviction rate is estimated as high as 40 percent. While most of the great work being done on wrongful convictions focuses on exonerations, my office will take a broader view of wrongful convictions, as we review and protect against them. Whenever someone receives an undue, unfair, or unequal conviction or sentence, that is wrongful.
My office will prioritize the review of every case to protect against this broader definition of wrongful conviction. It is not enough to review cases years after conviction when new evidence is presented or when court appeals are successful. The Manhattan DA’s office must be proactive to ensure cases are justly executed justly. Strong evidence suggests that most wrongful convictions, specifically ones in which an innocent person is sent to prison, are the direct result of prosecutorial mistakes or misconduct. Any Manhattan DA that espouses justice reform and progress must prioritize the rigorous examination of their own agency and use data-driven, expert guided, and scientifically valid approaches to do so.
There are disparities in outcomes across demographics such as race, socioeconomics, gender, sexual orientation, and more. It is simply not enough for an office as large and powerful as the Manhattan DA’s office to wait for other researchers and activists to analyze this issue. It is immoral when decades of research and activism have identified these disparities, and the DA’s office neither makes clear changes nor implements systems to address them. Instead, the Manhattan DA’s office must proactively assess itself in order to ensure it is aware of its own disparities and that it is positioned to address them effectively.
Upon taking office, I will establish a Conviction Review Unit. This unit will be staffed with attorneys, scientists, statisticians, data analysts, and subject matter experts. Additionally, The Unit will partner with external activists and research organizations. This unit will perform in-depth assessments of prosecutorial practices, provide legal review of and guidance on cases at risk for wrongdoing by the DAs office, and monitor data feeds of case information to flag cases that appear to be inappropriately conducted.
Many prosecutor’s offices around the nation have created dedicated units to manage and seek reversals of wrongful convictions. However, these units quickly become no more than cold-case units who only work on times where the person convicted is believed to be innocent. Instead, my Unit will work to review all practices and policies by my office. The Conviction Review Unit will examine cases previously charged by the Manhattan DA as well as monitor ongoing cases and incoming charges. This unit will not simply correct past wrongs, but also will steer the Manhattan DA’s office toward better future outcomes.
Importantly, this unit will report directly to the District Attorney. We believe that complete independence is required to maintain the impartial nature of the Conviction Review Unit as well as to prevent any possibility of or accusations of bias in favor of law enforcement. In this spirit, the Conviction Review Unit will charge external organizations to corroborate or challenge the Unit’s findings by sharing data openly and freely wherever allowed by law.
The Unit will have three major functions:
The Conviction Review Unit will be staffed with attorneys specifically hired for their non-prosecutorial experience–including public defenders, defense attorneys, legal scholars, and legal activists. This unit will have the full authority to review any active or closed case prosecuted by the Manhattan DA. This includes the authority to reassess any closed case where new knowledge has created reason to doubt the reliability of a witness, police officer, or prosecuting attorney. The Conviction Review Unit will have the full authority, with approval by the District Attorney herself, to intervene in any case they believe to be at risk of a wrongful conviction. This includes dropping cases in which conduct alleged amounts to charges that are on my decline to prosecute list.
The legal authority of this unit will not be just for trial cases, but will expand to plea bargains and indictments as well. A priority of the Unit will be to ensure that for all indictments pursued by the DA’s office, there is ample, credible evidence of a crime being committed. This means if the Unit has reason to believe the case is being pursued by the DA’s office with weak evidence, the Conviction Review Unit will step in to prevent charges from being filed. Far too often Assistant District Attorneys prosecute cases with weak evidence, but leverage their office’s power into forcing plea bargains. For this reason, the Conviction Review Unit will have the authority to alter or adjust any proposed plea bargain that they deem to be disproportionate to the offense committed. An explicit goal of the Conviction Review Unit will be to drop or reduce as many cases as possible.
The Conviction Review Unit will also serve as the legal operator on any closed case that is challenged as a wrongful conviction. This challenge may be brought by the Unit itself, as a result of its own assessments or by any external sources with credible arguments to reverse or modify a previous conviction. My office will maintain an online public portal for all people to voice concerns of cases where the charges or outcomes were wrongful. If the Conviction Review Unit determines a prior conviction or sentence should be adjusted or acquitted, the Unit will work with the District Attorney to file any court proceedings necessary to make this change happen.
The Conviction Review Unit will collect data on all cases brought into the office for charges. Under my leadership the Manhattan DA’s office, working with the broader New York County and New York City governments, will build robust data management and collection systems to ensure that all cases and operations are recorded and documented in an analyzable state. The Conviction Review Unit will have full, unrestricted access to all DA’s office data systems. The Unit will develop daily statistics, dashboards, and reports to demonstrate patterns in prosecution decisions and actions. Of particular importance will be measuring patterns along any demographic line such as race, religion, gender, sex, and more. Analysis will also focus on the distribution of actions taken for particular crime types to ensure the same crime is enforced equitably.
The Unit will develop a robust notification system to identify when cases appear to deviate from the defined targets set by my policies. These include sentences that are too long, plea bargains that change after trial, criminal charges that were not preceded by an attempt at diversion, and many more. While these flags are not indicative in themselves of wrong action, they must at least be identified in order for the Conviction Review Unit to evaluate them. The goal is to accurately measure and report any case in which the DA’s office is enforcing the law unfairly, unjustly, or unequally.
In line with our data and transparency initiatives, all data collected by the Conviction Review Unit, and any subsequent stastistic or analysis, will be made immediately available to the public. My office will openly welcome scrutiny and review from media, research, and community groups. I will allocate funds to award grants to research organizations and trusted third parties to conduct audits of our data practices and certify our results and releases.
It is critically important that the Manhattan DA’s operations are reviewed for fairness and accuracy. However, it is equally important that operations, programs, and policies are reviewed for effectiveness. Many agencies fall into the trap of simply checking their numbers, seeing a change, and declaring their program or policies a success. However, this approach is clearly unscientific and makes no attempt to create causal connections or understand pros and cons of a given policy. Agencies often grossly overestimate the effectiveness of their practices by using unscientific methods of evaluation. The DA and it’s office have been entrusted by the people of Manhattan as their principal law enforcement agency; as such, the DA has an obligation to ensure its practices are actually accomplishing the mission of public safety.
My Conviction Review Unit will employ its own social scientists and policy researchers to carry out rigorous scientific program evaluations at the direction of the district attorney. Of specific interest will be the effect that policies have on recidivism, overall crime rate, and outcomes for both victims and people who are charged with crimes. This team will also perform deep assessments of bias and injustices in the application of policies. The Unit will make its reports publicly available to maintain full transparency with other New York City agencies and the general public. In addition, my office will commit to funding external research partners to conduct thorough, independent evaluations of policies of the Manhattan DA, New York Police Department, New York County, and the City of New York.
- Loeffler, C.E., Hyatt, J. & Ridgeway, G. Measuring Self-Reported Wrongful Convictions Among Prisoners. J Quant Criminol 35, 259–286 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10940-018-9381-1
- Gould, J. B., Young, J., Leo, R., & Carrano, J. (2014). Predicting Erroneous Convictions: A Social Science Approach to Miscarriages of Justice (Rep.). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.