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26 BIG Ideas

The city's leaders in health, science, politics, food, and culture share their game-changing ideas for San Diego in 2016.


(page 23 of 26)

Let’s develop a model criminal justice system.

Justin Brooks, Director, California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law

When an innocent person goes to prison, the cost is high—not just to the accused, but to all taxpayers. Take into account the time spent by police pursuing a case, the use of prosecutors and defense attorneys (whom are paid by the county), and the expense of keeping the wrong person incarcerated. “All while the guilty person is walking the streets committing more crimes,” says Brooks. Since 1989, 1,702 wrongful convictions have been documented in the U.S., and according to Brooks, whose organization has exonerated 19 San Diegans so far, at least 6,000 of California’s 150,000 inmates shouldn’t even be in custody (most recently including Luis Vargas, who spent 16 years doing time for three sexual assaults that—according to new DNA evidence—were actually committed by the “Teardrop Rapist,” who is still at large). 

“The leading causes of wrongful convictions are witness misidentification, false witness testimony, false confessions, bad police work, and bad lawyering,” Brooks explains. He’d like to probe deeper and do the kind of investigating that happens after a plane crash. “Law enforcement, prosecutors, and defense attorneys should come together and study the cases where people were wrongfully convicted.” San Diego is in a good position to set an example. “We already have a great public defender’s office and prosecutor’s office. The D.A. cooperates on exonerations in ways very few others do in the U.S. Our chief of police is open to reform. We now have body cameras and a low crime rate.” But to raise the bar, we should perform identification procedures based on the latest science. We should record all interrogations and use best practices to lessen the likelihood of false confession, throw out unreliable informant testimony, hire independent labs rather than police crime labs, and provide full discovery and maximum transparency in every case. How to fund these extra steps? He says we could stop pursuing costly death penalty cases, and use those resources to investigate uncharged rape and murder cases. To get the ball rolling, firsthand experience would be a great motivator for change. “I’d like to see every police officer, prosecutor, defense attorney, and judge spend one day in jail, so they have at least the slightest idea what people go through when the system gets it wrong.”

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