News 01.03.20

Innocence Project Statement on New York’s New Pretrial Laws 

(New York — January 3, 2020) In response to the enactment of New York’s pretrial justice reform, Innocence Project Director of Policy Rebecca Brown released the following statement: 

“As New York’s landmark criminal justice reforms are implemented, we celebrate its promise to address a deeply unjust system that incentivizes plea deals, regardless of guilt. If an accused person cannot afford bail, or does not know what evidence against them the state possesses, pleading guilty often becomes the most rational choice to avoid detention.

Of the more than 367 people across the nation proven innocent through post-conviction DNA testing, over 10 percent pleaded guilty to violent felonies such as sexual assault and murder. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 18 percent of all known exonerees—more than 2,500 people—pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit. These shocking numbers largely exclude misdemeanors, where the pressure to plead is even higher.

Bail reform will finally level the playing field, ensuring that innocent people will not need to bargain for their freedom. The new laws also expand discovery practices, guaranteeing New Yorkers access to evidence in their cases and preventing them from being coerced into plea deals.

Prior to these landmark reforms, New York had one of the four worst discovery statutes in the country. Its laws prevented defense attorneys from accessing key evidence—such as witness statements and police reports—early on in criminal cases. This significantly hindered their ability to properly advise their clients and develop effective cases. As a result, people facing criminal charges—often from low-income households and communities of color—took unfair plea deals to avoid additional prison time without knowing whether prosecutors even possessed incriminating evidence. Many innocent people have been ensnared by this system.

Beyond the unspeakable trauma that wrongful convictions wreak upon people and their loved ones, the status quo also has a tangible price tag. Over the past 30 years, New York taxpayers have paid out $670 million in civil and statutory compensation to wrongfully convicted people. 

The previous system that harmed poor people and people of color, reduced public safety, convicted the innocent, and costed taxpayers hundreds of millions could not be defended. New Yorkers committed to fairness and equality under the law should not be frightened of change; instead they should celebrate and embrace it.” 

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