Monday, January 23, 2006

Greenleaf officially introduces bill to establish the Innocence Commission of Pennsylvania

Senator Greenleaf announced his legislation, Senate Bill 1069, that would establish the Innocence Commission of Pennsylvania. Joined by Senator Jay Costa (D-Allegheny), Senator Shirley Kitchen (D-Philadelphia), exoneree Thomas Doswell of Pittsburgh, and Professor John Rago of the Duquesne University School of Law, Greenleaf said, "I can't imagine anyone being opposed to this. I can't imagine anyone would step up and suggest that we convict the innocent." (Don't put it past the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.)

The make-up of these kinds of projects can be pivotal because they can easily be rigged. Greenleaf said that the commission will include "police, judges, victim advocates, defense attorneys and prosecutors, as well as legal scholars and representatives of groups involved in criminal justice issues."

However, that's not exactly what the bill says. The legislation states that the commission "must include at least one member from the following constituencies: prosecution, defense, law enforcement, corrections, judiciary and victim assistance." (my italics) Take a look at that list. Speaking in general terms, four of those six groups will tend to lean pro-death penalty. It's great when we get prosecutors, police, corrections officers, and victims advocates who are also abolitionists. However, when they speak as a group, it's usually pro-death.

The judiciary member(s) could go either way on criminal justice reform. Even defense attorneys are uncertain but probably more reliable than the rest.

As for those who might give an objective view on reform, the bill says, "(T)he commission may include representatives of academia, private and public organizations involved in criminal justice issues and other criminal justice experts." (again, my italics) "May" means "not required."

If this passes, we will need to keep a vigilant eye on what the commission does. No whistling in the graveyard allowed.

The purpose, as reported here previously, is to examine "the causes of wrongful conviction and finding the best methods of reducing the chances that what happened to Thomas Doswell will not happen to any other person."

Now, I can tell you the reasons:
1. Underpaid, overworked, underfunded, sometimes unskilled defense attorneys for the poor
2. Prosecutorial misconduct
3. Police misconduct
4. The impact of race
See? That was easy. They can just forget the commission and give me the money that would have been spent.

The other participants provided some important insight. Professor Rago called it "a marvelous bill" and noted that PA has eight DNA exonerations. Only five other states have more. The Professor said, "Innocence reforms are good law enforcement," a nod to the point that when an innocent man is convicted, a guilty man goes free.

Senator Kitchen said, "This is the most important legislation that I'll see in my tenure in the Senate."

Ok, here's where I have to pull on the reins again. I appreciate this bill, and I appreciate the bipartisan enthusiasm behind it (5 Rs and 7 Ds are co-sponsoring). However, this better not be the most important legislation in Senator Kitchen's tenure, unless she's retiring soon. The most important legislation in her tenure should be the legislation that comes forth as a result of this commission. Studying issues is important, but this bill has to be passed in order to figure out what other bills have to be passed to fix the problem.

This is Step 1 of a multi-step process.


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