Commentary
11:29 am
Mon May 23, 2011

Not Guilty As Charged

How many of the forty-four thousand prisoners sitting in our state’s prisons do you think are actually innocent of the charges which put them there? None? A handful? Maybe … one percent?

I talked recently with a man who is an expert on this, and what he told me was absolutely shocking. Jim Petro was Ohio’s Attorney General for four years, until he left office to make an unsuccessful run for governor in 2006.

Petro, who is now head of higher education in Ohio, is nobody’s idea of a liberal. He is a deeply conservative Republican who opposes abortion and same-sex marriage and is a strong supporter of concealed-carry weapons laws. He first made his mark as a tough prosecutor. When DNA testing first became available, he saw it as another great tool for putting the bad guys away.

But then he got a nasty shock.

When the results started to be analyzed, it turned out that a surprising number of convicts in Ohio prisons turned out to be actually innocent. In fact, as many as one out of every four were. Another man might have tried to suppress that information, but not Petro. He is a firm believer in professional ethics.

And, as he noted, “the duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict.” With that, he risked his political future by focusing a good bit of his energy on trying to win the release of a number of inmates who it seemed to him were clearly innocent.

All this is especially relevant in our state now, in part because we aren‘t much different that Ohio. And also, last week, the ACLU launched a campaign to reform Michigan’s public defender system.

Their campaign, which got little notice in the press, includes a new book documenting the horrors suffered by thirteen Michigan defendants who were unjustly convicted of crimes they didn’t convict.

That book, or really, booklet, is called “Faces of Failing Public Defense Systems -- Portraits of Michigan’s Constitutional Crisis.’

They call it a constitutional crisis because our state constitution requires counties to pay the expense of appointing and compensating defense counsel for those defendants who can’t afford to pay. This may work very well in some larger and more affluent counties, like Washtenaw or Kent.

But it has proven to be a disaster in smaller and poorer counties. Robin Dahlberg, a staff lawyer for the ACLU, says this is not a case of bad lawyers so much as a “bankrupt criminal justice system in which we are all complicit.”

What the ACLU wants is for the state to take over running and financing the public defender system. Some may say, well, that’s a fine idealistic theory, but Michigan happens to be flat broke.

Maybe so. But the cost of warehousing prisoners is far greater than giving them adequate representation. Not to mention the sums Michigan could have to pay out in wrongful conviction lawsuits.

By the way, Jim Petro believes so strongly in the need to reform the system that he and his wife Nancy have written a book about it: “False Justice: Eight Myths that Convict the Innocent,” published by Kaplan. If you have any doubts that our public defender system needs reform, I encourage you to read it.