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Montana convicts and incarcerates innocent people. It must stop.

by Frank Knaack

(Originally published by the Missoulian)

One hundred fifty-two. That’s the number of years that wrongfully convicted people in Montana have spent incarcerated since 1989.

That’s likely the tip of the iceberg. In the past three years alone, the Montana Innocence Project has helped to exonerate six people who spent a combined 95 years in Montana’s prisons for crimes they didn’t commit.

Today is Wrongful Conviction Day. People around the world are raising awareness about wrongful convictions and the harms to individuals and families that accompany every wrongful conviction.

Thanks to advocacy and reporting, more people are learning about the injustices in our criminal justice systems — injustices that disproportionately harm people of color and Indigenous people, and injustices that too often send innocent people to prison.

The six exonerees we served provide irrefutable proof that Montana convicts and incarcerates innocent people. Through our legal work, we have identified systemic failures that undermine the integrity of Montana’s criminal justice system. These injustices are well known to prosecutors and law enforcement. Yet, they continue to exist.

That’s why the Montana Innocence Project is expanding its work. While we continue to provide free legal representation to wrongfully convicted people, we are also stepping up our work to build a just, fair and accurate criminal justice system in Montana — a system that recognizes that one wrongfully convicted person is one too many.

Here are three concrete ways to make our justice system more just, more fair, and more accurate:

First: Require safeguards to protect against false testimony from jailhouse informants. Jailhouse informants are often given leniency or other benefits in exchange for their testimony. This provides a strong motivation for them to lie. Jailhouse informants played a role in four of Montana’s 14 proven wrongful convictions.

Second: Update Montana’s post-conviction relief law to ensure individuals have a meaningful opportunity to overturn wrongful convictions based on newly discovered non-DNA evidence. New non-DNA evidence — which could include a confession by the real perpetrator or advances in science that discredit forensic evidence used in a conviction — has been the basis for the majority of exonerations in Montana. Under current law it is extremely difficult for wrongfully convicted people to get back to court with new non-DNA evidence.

Third: Reduce the use of pretrial detention. Sixty-one percent of people in Montana’s jails have not been convicted of a crime. Most are there simply because they cannot afford bail. People incarcerated for even one day can lose their job, housing, and children. This places innocent people in the unconscionable position of having to choose between pleading guilty to a crime they didn’t commit just to get out of jail faster or spending weeks, months or longer incarcerated while they wait for their day to prove their innocence in court.

In recent years, these reforms have faced opposition from some prosecutors and law enforcement. This opposition must stop.

When we strengthen the integrity of our justice system we also make our communities safer. After a violent crime occurs and an innocent person is convicted, the actual perpetrator remains free. Just looking at exonerations by DNA evidence, a small subset of all exonerations, while the innocent person sat incarcerated, the actual perpetrators in those crimes went on to be convicted of 152 additional violent crimes (82 sexual assaults, 35 murders and 35 other violent crimes).

Montana must prioritize accuracy over conviction rates. That’s how we make our communities safer. Montana must ensure wrongly convicted people have an avenue to secure their exoneration. That’s how we make our communities safer.

Montana must stop incarcerating innocent people. These reforms are a step in the right direction.

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