The effectiveness of the criminal justice system is dependent on its accuracy; that is, its ability to convict those who are guilty and vindicate the innocent. However, despite numerous reforms, the criminal justice system still faces the challenge of wrongful convictions. The growing prevalence of wrongful convictions is negatively impacting citizens’ trust in the criminal justice system. This paper explores how wrongful convictions have affected the criminal justice system and how they can be prevented.
What is Wrongful Conviction?
Wrongful conviction refers to the miscarriage of justice whereby the criminal justice system convicts and punishes a person for a crime that he/she did not actually commit. Notably, a wrongful conviction can occur in both criminal and civil cases (Garrett, 2020). According to Garrett, a conviction qualifies as wrongful when: (1) the convicted individual is factually innocent of the charges and (2) when the conviction is characterized by procedural errors that violate the convicted individual’s rights.
How Wrongful Convictions have impacted the Criminal Justice System
Over the years, the criminal justice has wrongfully convicted numerous individuals; this is evident in the rate of exonerations in the past decades. For the past three decades, in the US, more than 2500 people have been exonerated. Notably, each exonerated person spent an average of 8 to 10 months for a crime they did not commit (“Wrongful Convictions”, 2021). Wrongful convictions undermine two key aspects of the criminal justice system’s legitimacy. To start with, if an individual is wrongfully convicted, he/she is punished for an offense they did not commit while the actual perpetrator goes free. Secondly, they cause public confidence in the criminal justice system to decline (Garrett, 2020). Thus, wrongful convictions undermine the legal value of the criminal justice system and public trust in the system.
Players that can Ensure Wrongful Convictions do Not Occur
The five players of the criminal justice system include community, law enforcement, prosecution, courts, and corrections. Besides corrections, the other four can use ethical behavior/practice to prevent wrongful convictions. The community can use ethical behavior to ensure wrongful convictions do not occur avoiding false accusations and eyewitness misidentification. Sometimes people accuse others of committing a crime without evidence or purposely misidentify individuals as criminals (Garrett, 2020). The law enforcement pillar involves policing. Police should ensure their work is undergirded by ethical practices. Police should, therefore, ensure that their work is free of misconduct such as tampering with evidence and tunnel vision approaches such as profiling.
The prosecution can ensure wrongful convictions do not occur by cross-examining evidence and witnesses to ensure accuracy. Notably, cross-examining evidence also entails ensuring that is free of forensic errors. Weak prosecution considerably increases the probability of wrongful conviction (Garrett, 2020), (Norris et al., 2019). Lastly, courts should ensure that appropriate procedures are observed during trials. It is also important for the courts to educate individuals serving as jury about the importance of being impartial and making decisions based on evidence provided and not personal feelings towards the issue or person under trial (Norris et al., 2019). Therefore, by upholding ethical behavior/practice, community, law enforcement, prosecution, and courts can ensure wrongful convictions do not occur.
Code and Mechanisms to Enforce Ethical Behavior
There are various codes and mechanisms for enforcing ethical behavior in law enforcement that can ensure wrongful convictions are overturned. Firstly, enforcing the best practices proved to reduce the probability of wrongful convictions. This includes having mechanisms that promote best practices in eyewitness identification, interrogation procedures, informant operations, and evidence storage and preservation (Likos, 2021). Secondly, learning from error by using the organizational accident model. According to Likos, the organizational accidental model allows law enforcement agencies to review errors as system-wide weaknesses as opposed to single-cause mistakes. This facilitates systems thinking which is relatively more effective in rectifying errors. Lastly but equally important, improving law enforcement procedures by using knowledge acquired from wrongful convictions. Reviewing wrongful convictions can produce useful information that can help in investigating crimes and making arrests (Russell, 2018). The objective of the code and mechanisms should be to streamline law enforcement to ensure only the guilty are convicted.
To sum up, wrongful conviction punishes the innocent while the guilty are goes free. Consequently, wrongful convictions adversely impact the criminal justice system by undermining the value of law and diminishing public confidence. However, various players within the criminal justice system including the community, law enforcement, prosecution, and courts can use ethical behavior/practice to prevent wrongful convictions. Moreover, enforcing the best practices, learning from error by using the organizational accident model, and improving law enforcement procedures by using knowledge acquired from wrongful convictions can help in the combat against wrongful convictions.
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