We need a National Criminal Justice Commission


In late April, after 19 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, Frank Sterling became the 253rd person in this country to be exonerated by DNA testing. The former trucker had confessed to police after a marathon interrogation — 12 hours of questioning that followed his 36-hour driving shift. He later recanted, to no avail. In early May, after 29 years in prison for a rape he did not commit, Raymond Towler became the 254th to be exonerated.

Although wrongful convictions and incarcerations are the most heart-wrenching manifestations of a deeply flawed criminal justice system, the truth is that mistakes, inequities and injustices abound. Standards and methodology for everything from suspect interviews to analysis of evidence vary from state to state and even county to county. But regardless of now glaring patterns of error, the relentless machinery of incarceration continues. With only 5% of the world’s population, the United States has 25% of the world’s prisoners.

So it is encouraging that a blue-ribbon panel charged with scrutinizing every aspect of the criminal justice system may soon be a reality. For two years, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) has championed the idea of a National Criminal Justice Commission, which would examine and then propose comprehensive changes to the $68-billion system. Legislation to create the commission is pending in both chambers, and Congress should hasten to pass it.

Of course, some answers to why the system is overcrowded, expensive and inefficient are obvious. In an effort to incarcerate our way out of a public health problem, the nation has locked up drug users in record numbers — up 1,200% since 1980. And prisons have become the nation’s mental health wards. The Department of Justice estimates that 16% of the adult inmate population is mentally ill, which means, according to Webb, that four times as many mentally ill people are in prisons as are in mental health facilities.

Once formed, the commission would not only seek to expose flaws in the system but to assemble the wealth of information that is already available. For example, erroneous eyewitness identification is known to be the leading cause of false convictions. In Towler’s case, the 11-year-old victim and witnesses misidentified him from a photograph. Sterling’s case also fits a known pattern: Confessions elicited under intense pressure are the second most common cause of false convictions. And junk science comes in third: Flawed analyses of hair, carpet fibers and bite marks have sent numerous innocent people to prison. The nation badly needs a coherent justice system based on best practices. A national commission cannot form quickly enough for all the other innocent people languishing in prison.