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Shaw: Illinois must do more to reduce rate of wrongful convictions

Updated: November 11, 2012 6:05AM



Chicago vs. New York.

Fans of these two world-class cities often argue about which has the better sports teams, political theater, cultural scene, even pizza. It’s mostly in good fun and, of course, we think Chicago has the edge.

But NYC recently beat Chicago, and the state of Illinois, by initiating a seriously needed and long overdue criminal justice reform: Changing the way its police department handles interrogations of violent crime suspects to reduce forced confessions and the high rate of wrongful convictions.

New York’s plan calls for videotaping interrogations in cases of murder, sex crimes and felony assaults. Right now, it’s voluntary at the precinct level, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg reportedly expects it to become a citywide practice ASAP.

Chicago and Illinois aren’t strangers to the high cost of wrongful convictions. In June 2011, the Better Government Association and the Center on Wrongful Convictions reported that since 1989, 85 men and women were wrongfully convicted and collectively served 926 years in prison for violent crimes they didn’t commit.

Lawsuits stemming from those cases — 85 percent of them originating in Chicago and 95 percent involving government mistakes or misconduct — will cost taxpayers more than $300 million when you add in the pending and new cases connected to Jon Burge, a felon and former Chicago police commander whose unit allegedly tortured more than 200 suspects between 1971 and 1991.

Burge, by the way, is the only public official who’s been held accountable for this shameful miscarriage of justice. That has to end, and the system has to change.

One simple but effective step is for more Illinois police departments to follow New York City’s lead by expanding their videotaping procedures.

Illinois already requires videotaped interrogations in murder cases, and two dozen municipalities statewide are recording more felony interviews than the law requires.

This won’t impose an additional burden on taxpayers because the technology is in place — the cops just need to turn it on.

Other reforms that can go a long way toward preventing false confessions in major crime cases include:

Videotaping lineups, which can capture the interaction between witnesses and police officers and protect both sides from mistakes.

Using “blind” administrators, which calls for a law enforcement professional unconnected to a pending investigation to oversee the lineup so there’s less chance of improperly influencing witness identifications.

Changing procedures for a prosecutor’s reliance on jailhouse “snitches” to secure a conviction. That can minimize the frequency of fabricated testimony in exchange for leniency.

Punishing law enforcement and criminal justice officials who intentionally subvert the facts to secure an indictment or conviction.

Last spring, members of an Illinois Senate committee heard testimony from the BGA, other watchdog and reform groups and exonerated victims of wrongful convictions about cleansing the system. But efforts to move past the talking stage haven’t succeeded.

Let’s hope our lawmakers get re-energized about this topic after the Nov. 6 election.

Because though it’s not a burning issue for most people, a fair criminal justice system is a key component of a healthy democracy.

And there’s no reason for Chicago to be the Second City on this one.

Andy Shaw, president and chief executive of the Better Government Association, can be reached at ashaw@bettergov.org



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