February 09, 2006
Criminal justice reforms proposed

This Chron story about criminal justice reform proposals is very interesting.

Giving trial judges more discretion to order post-conviction DNA testing and studying ways to improve eyewitness identification are among the dozens of recommendations released Tuesday by the governor's criminal justice advisory council.

The council also wants the state to look into establishing public defenders' offices and increasing the compensation to the wrongfully convicted.


The report said public defender offices would improve the quality of representation, especially in rural areas where there are few defense attorneys willing to accept court appointments. The cost of a statewide program would exceed several hundred million dollars a year, the report said.

Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Barbara Hervey, who led the council's Forensics Committee, said trial judges have been reluctant to order DNA testing without specific statutory authority to do so. The council recommended the law be changed to give judges discretion and make it clear that the state will incur the cost of testing unless the applicant has hired a lawyer.

"The defense would still have to show a need. But these small changes would really free up the trial courts in granting forensic testing," Hervey said.

More testing would add to the backlog at Texas Department of Public Safety crime labs, so the panel called for the state to pay for DNA testing at private laboratories. Additionally, the state should give $10,000 salary increases to the 170 scientists working for DPS and expand crime-lab facilities.


The panel also suggested establishing a pilot program at several locations across the state designed to improve the reliability of eyewitness identifications. Faulty eyewitness testimony has been implicated in a number of cases in which convictions were overturned after DNA evidence was tested.

Some states require photo lineups be shown by a "blind presenter" not involved in the investigation. Since the presenter doesn't know who the suspect is, there are no suggestive expressions or comments to influence the witness.

A pilot program also could test whether reliability improves when photos are presented to a witness one by one instead of simultaneously in a photo spread.

The panel encouraged local law enforcement agencies to use in-car audio-video recording of all traffic stops. It also called for a survey to see how many jurisdictions are videotaping the interrogation and confession of suspects in major crimes.

Quite a few of these proposals are longtime progressive agenda items - blind and sequential lineups, public defenders, greater leeway in granting requests for DNA testing when a conviction is being challenged - and some of them, the last two in particular, will cost money. I applaud Governor Perry for taking initiative on this, and if he actually pushes for some of these reforms I'll be genuinely impressed, but I fear that our current budget surplus will be long gone before any means to pay for these items are suggested. I'm willing to be pleasantly surprised, though.

Scott has links to the council's full report, and he promises some more in depth analysis later. I look forward to it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 09, 2006 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack

"Loser Pays" is my favorite reform. It would do a lot to curb lawsuit abuse. (Currently judges can assign legal fees to a judgement, but rarely do. The default judgement should assign legal fees while giving judges the leeway to strike them for cause.)

I also favor more emphasis on restitution (or better yet "restitution plus 20%" as some countries require) as a tool for enhancing dispensation of appropriate justice.

Posted by: Rock Howard on February 9, 2006 1:03 PM