Over the last decade, more than 30 district attorneys nationwide, many who consider themselves part of a new wave of prosecutors more interested in fair play than in a stack of guilty verdicts, have established conviction-integrity units. The standalone teams of lawyers and investigators delve into an office’s past cases, hunting for people wrongfully convicted of a crime.
But the practice—which affects the handful of cases in which someone truly innocent went to prison—offers limited redress, functioning more as an emblem of a cultural shift than a broad righting of wrongs. The conviction-review unit in Brooklyn, New York, considered one of the most effective in the United States, has identified just 23 wrongful convictions over the past several decades.
None of these conviction-review units have undertaken the far more ambitious task of examining cases where the conviction might be sound but the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. That would mean poking into the sentences sought by a previous generation of prosecutors whose reflexive stance, for decades, was often to seek maximum charges carrying hefty terms behind bars. “It might open the floodgates to reviewing thousands of sentences,” said Steven A. Drizin, a law professor at Northwestern University and an expert on wrongful convictions, who said he supports sentence reviews.
Despite the daunting undertaking, the idea is starting to gain traction. In Philadelphia, where former civil-rights attorney and public defender Larry Krasner was recently sworn in as district attorney, staffers are making plans for a sentence-review program, likely the first of its kind in the country. Nationally, nearly two dozen newly elected prosecutors are working with an advocacy organization called Fair and Just Prosecution to implement their own sentencing-review procedures in the coming year, said Miriam Krinsky, the group’s executive director and a former longtime federal prosecutor.
Such a massive undertaking is, like many of the ambitions of this new breed of prosecutors, far easier said than done.
Normally, courts allow a prosecutor to seek resentencing only in limited circumstances, such as when new evidence arises or when legislators pass a new sentencing law that needs to be applied retroactively. For example, Maryland in 2016 revised its mandatory minimum sentences, with a clause allowing judges to use those changes to reduce the time that then-current prisoners were serving.