As a prosecutor and a state legislator, I have tremendous respect and appreciation for our legal system. It is an incredibly complex system that does its best to make sure that the public stays safe and victims are made whole. But I have also seen instances where our criminal justice system does not work and is not just.
During my second year of law school, I interned with the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center (RMIC), a non-profit which works to correct and prevent the wrongful conviction of innocent people in Utah, Nevada and Wyoming. Currently, RMIC has 60 active cases in the three states. Sadly, their work has become much more difficult during the pandemic.
Utah has had 18 exonerations since 1989, with an average of about one person every year being exonerated for a crime he or she did not commit. A study in Pennsylvania found that 6% of incarcerated people reported being wrongfully convicted. Another study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found an estimated 4% of people sentenced to death are likely innocent. In the nation that incarcerates far more people than any other country, this number of wrongfully convicted — tragically — could be even higher.
Since early last year, the pandemic has caused serious delays and cancellations for in-person court proceedings and caused a growing backlog of cases, including post-conviction cases. It also meant that RMIC’s pro-bono lawyers were unable to travel and properly investigate their cases. As with many other aspects of life, the pandemic has caused the wheels of justice to nearly grind to a halt.
Meanwhile, conditions for the incarcerated have become even more difficult. Inmates have been denied visitation from family and friends, and many incarcerated people are languishing without adequate mental health support. Despite some recommended early releases for state prison and Salt Lake County jails last spring, Utah has not been granting compassionate release for those serving time for serious criminal convictions.
All inmates have had to deal with these changes, but it makes the situation even more tragic when an inmate is wrongfully convicted. One of RMIC’s clients passed away from COVID-19 in December while awaiting a hearing, and many others caught the disease — which has spread more rampantly at the state prison.
Thankfully, inmates in Utah are now able to receive vaccinations and the prison plans to resume in-person visits in June, but upshifting the criminal justice system back into gear and addressing the backlog of cases will take time. The longer it takes to bring a case to trial, the greater the chance key witnesses will die or forget details. Ultimately, “justice delayed is justice denied.”
Another effect of COVID-19 on the criminal justice system is that more defendants are choosing to strike plea deals rather than continue fighting for their cases. They are making this choice even though a criminal conviction can stigmatize someone for life and jeopardize their ability to obtain housing, jobs and education. Now, imagine having to make that choice if you are innocent.
You can make a difference by educating yourself about the problems that lead to unjust convictions and incarceration. You can support organizations like RMIC that are trying to bring justice to the innocent. You can call legislators and urge them to support legislation to improve the criminal justice system and prevent wrongful convictions. And you can encourage reforms to end mass incarceration and treat those who are incarcerated more humanely, particularly with regard to medical care and compassionate release.
Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” In other words, the conditions of our prisons and our treatment of those convicted of a crime reflects on all of us. At this moment, we must never overlook the basic human rights and wellbeing of the incarcerated, even in the midst of a global pandemic.
And in cases where a person could have been mistakenly convicted, we face an even greater moral obligation to ensure those cases are properly and promptly scrutinized. Any miscarriage of justice is a disgrace that belongs to every one of us.
State Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Midvale, represents District 44 in the Utah House of Representatives and is a Murray city prosecutor.