Changing the Culture of Prosecution from Winning to Justice

It’s that time of year: as basketball and hockey are winding down for the summer, baseball season is in full swing. Fans from across the country have been hearing a lot this season about one man — and no, he’s not a player. Out in Illinois, a White Sox groundskeeper named Nevest Coleman just received his certificate of innocence from Cook County after 23 years of wrongful imprisonment.

Nevest Coleman, courtesy of the Chicago Tribune

Across the country, prosecutors faced with conclusive evidence of innocence frequently refuse to admit wrongdoing. We have seen time and time again examples of coerced confessions that have allowed prosecutors to secure convictions and single-handedly determine the fate of someone in the wrong place at the wrong time, simply with the weight of the threat of imprisonment. That power is so great that 1 out of 4 people exonerated through ironclad DNA evidence were forced to lie and provide false confessions.

The system that allows police and prosecutors to force these innocent people to go to prison does a disservice to society on multiple levels. This system ruins innocent lives and consigns them to unimaginably cruel fates. It allows the true perpetrators to go free and continue their wrongdoing, victimizing more innocent people in the process. Not to mention that we waste finite government resources to maintain dismal prison conditions and assign sentences that are tragically miscategorized as “correctional.”

Delaware, by the way, spends about $40,000 annually on each of its nearly 7,000 inmates — that is well over $200 million every year in prison costs alone (excluding the costs of recidivism and other downstream effects of incarceration). If you consider that between 2.5–5% of people incarcerated are innocent, Delaware spends as much as about $14 million annually incarcerating innocent people. That’s equal to the first-year salary of 350 public school teachers; it’s also about the number of innocent people in Delaware jails.

The root problem is corrupt and ambitious law enforcement officials, including certain police and prosecutors, who employ a win-at-all-costs mentality to secure convictions instead of justice for the people. Conviction rates lead to things like promotions, budget boosts, and electoral opportunities. The lives of innocent bystanders should not be the playthings of overly-ambitious prosecutors. That abuse of discretion betrays and destroys the public trust; it alienates vulnerable communities; it destroys the fabric of our society by using the threads that bind us all for personal benefit. Law enforcement must be freed of the wrongheaded approach that is mass incarceration, and the perpetrators of this modern tragedy must not be given more tools to destroy lives.

I am specifically talking about the death penalty that is up for debate in our state legislature. We already have evidence that prosecutors across the country abuse this discretion, even if they say they will use it only in extreme circumstances or despite personal opposition to it. There are mountains of evidence demonstrating that this sentence is a complete abuse of power that disproportionately threatens poor people and people of color. We have enough of that rhetoric and policy coming from Washington D.C., and we are just 11 votes away from reinstating it here in Delaware. We already put too many innocent people behind bars — we must not now put them at risk of execution.

The culture of winning is pervasive in our halls of justice. I have lived and breathed the scoreboard mentality as a student athlete, and I can say that it does not belong in our courtrooms. This attitude must be confined to the locker room and playing field. It is wholly inappropriate in a court of law, yet that is exactly where it is most prevalent. I know the violence it instills in the hearts of even the most outwardly gentle people. Unfortunately, Delaware is no exception, and if anything, we are more guilty of prosecutorial overreach than our neighbors.

In Delaware, our leaders have insulated our systems from targeted and holistic review — that is a tragic mistake that will only cause more harm and allow further tremendous, fiscally-irresponsible waste. As Attorney General, one of my first initiatives would be to strike up partnerships with national expert organizations like the Vera Institute, the Innocence Project, and others to apply for grants as needed and secure resources. We must bring these expert groups in to review our systems, implement best practices, and help us establish a fully functioning and proactive conviction review unit buoyed by a parallel charging review unit. I would also maintain a list tracking the actions of unreliable or biased law enforcement officials, because the first step a public servant should take in regaining public trust is admitting the wrongs done, understanding their harm, and correcting the mechanisms that perpetuate them.

We must be sure of the charges we file, and we must be sure that the people we put in prison have actually committed the crimes for which they have been convicted. To do this, we must challenge the biases and preconceptions that plague the justice system. The presumption of innocence is the fulcrum on which our entire system of justice depends. Guaranteeing freedom for the innocent is what genuine justice demands, what our current systems fails to provide, and what I will pursue every day of my tenure.

It’s not about winning. It’s about real justice.