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California rolls out post-conviction justice unit

It will be the Golden State's first statewide unit dedicated to partnering with local prosecutors and reviewing cases of wrongful criminal convictions.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California Attorney General Rob Bonta officially opened the state Department of Justice’s first post-conviction justice unit Friday. 

“Whether it’s due to bias, changes in forensics or any other issues, the criminal legal system is not foolproof,” Bonta tweeted Friday. “Every effort must be made to protect the integrity of prosecutions in California."

In a statement, Bonta said the new unit will have broad discretion and work with local district attorneys to conduct investigations and reviews aimed at resolving wrongful or improper criminal convictions. That includes situations where there could be “evidence of significant integrity issues” so that officials can identify cases that may qualify for resentencing. 

He said conviction integrity units typically work to identify and address wrongful convictions — often by reviewing new credible information that may exonerate someone previously convicted of a crime — or take other actions within established law to remedy potential injustices.

Although there are already avenues through the appellate process to address injustice claims in the current court system, Bonta said conviction integrity units provide an additional opportunity to proactively address issues and look to improve accuracy and legitimacy of prosecutorial conduct. 

“We fight each and every day to protect our communities and hold those who break the law accountable," Bonta said. "Yet, despite our best efforts, we know our criminal legal system is not infallible.”

The unit will be initially staffed by two deputy attorneys general within the Criminal Law Division who will build on existing resources. Subject to Bonta’s discretion, the new attorneys will be empowered to establish formal, finalized protocols and standards before taking external case review referrals. 

Some of their tasks will include reviewing state Justice Department cases and claims of innocence or wrongful conviction, or cases where there may be a significant integrity issue or local authorities do not operate a conviction integrity unit. They will also review cases for potential resentencing where local authorities need assistance, and coordinate leading conviction integrity units to “foster a culture of integrity, transparency, and efficacy that promotes public trust.”

The unit will also provide statewide leadership to support best practices across California, and “seek to remedy cases where there have been miscarriages of justice,” Bonta said. “Whether issues arise as a result of new exculpatory information or advancements in forensic science, it is incumbent on prosecutors to make good faith efforts to correct injustice.”

Elliot Hosman is a case and policy specialist with the San Francisco Public Defender's Office's Freedom Project, which helps individuals get their sentences reviewed by judges. Hosman said there have been about 267 wrongful convictions overturned in California since 1989, but experts estimate that up to 6% of people currently in prison are wrongfully convicted.

"In California, that means there are as many as 5,700 people whose cases await meaningful review and just as many families and communities awaiting reunification," Hosman said.

Hosman said new resentencing laws give DAs the power undo disproportionate sentences and give people second chances.

"Yet despite millions of dollars in targeted budget allocations, very few prosecutors are referring cases for correction," Hosman said. "We hope the attorney general’s office will act not just to review cases but to act swiftly to correct injustice around the state, whether from wrongful conviction, unfair tactics, or overly severe sentencing. We hope the attorney general will join the fight to ensure that public defender's offices — which are integral to representing community members in navigating the post-conviction relief process — continue to receive state funding for this urgent work."

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