In the past four years, hundreds of people in Baltimore have been imprisoned on gun-related charges based solely on the testimony of Baltimore Police Department’s troubled Gun Trace Task Force. When those officers were found to have engaged in widespread misconduct — including robbing citizens, lying on police reports and taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in unearned overtime pay — their testimony and the integrity of the resulting convictions were called into question. But as cases are being reviewed to assess the impact of officer misconduct, another injustice has come to light: a gap in Maryland state law that prevents prosecutors from seeking relief and addressing past wrongs.
A bill in the Maryland legislature would close this gap by authorizing prosecutors to seek to vacate a conviction “in the interest of justice and fairness.” In doing so, it is the latest example of our justice system’s long-standing recognition that prosecutors must be able to fulfill their obligation to seek justice, not merely convictions. And it is part of a growing national movement of prosecutors that recognizes that the pursuit of justice demands consideration of future and past decisions.
As thousands of exonerations plainly demonstrate, our justice system is flawed at times. When mistakes occur or new insights emerge that inform a just result, there should be an avenue to remedy that injustice. From instances of wrongful conviction or police misconduct to situations in which individuals bear the burden of decades-long sentences that would no longer be imposed or convictions for crimes (such as marijuana) no longer being prosecuted, there are many compelling situations in which prosecutors should take a second look at prior judgments.
We’re already seeing this starting to take hold nationwide. The recently enacted federal First Step Act, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, will shorten thousands of individuals’ sentences, underscoring a growing consensus around the need to right-size our justice system not only going forward also looking back. More than 30 jurisdictions nationwide have established conviction integrity processes to address claims of innocence or wrongdoing, and district attorneys are seeking relief when confidence in the integrity of convictions are undermined. And California recently enacted legislation giving prosecutors discretion to recommend a sentence reduction in the interest of justice.
As “ministers of justice” with powerful discretion to pursue whatever path would lead to just results, prosecutors have a clarion call to remedy past wrongdoing. But when Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby did just that, reviewing more than 2,000 cases potentially tainted by the Gun Trace Task Force and recommending that 150 be overturned, judges blocked nearly 20 percent of these requests, citing lack of procedural grounds for relief. This legal tripwire surprised many — with retired trial Judge Alex Williams calling the denials “appalling.”
The Maryland bill has met with resistance from some who argue it’s not a prosecutor’s duty to correct injustices — echoing similar arguments made when prosecutors sought to establish conviction integrity units or create mechanisms for tracking police misconduct. These arguments strike at the core of what type of justice system we are willing to stand for.
As noted in a statement (signed by more than 55 national criminal justice leaders), prosecutors wield tremendous power in the justice system that uniquely positions them to address past injustices. Prosecutors often have access to information to justify revisiting past cases, making their offices the ideal place to begin the process for correcting mistakes. They are also gatekeepers to the justice system and decide what cases are just ones to pursue.
We’re at a tipping point in a significant national conversation that will shape the future of our justice system. This conversation is particularly urgent in Baltimore and in cities where communities of color have seen too many incidents that seed distrust in law enforcement and inhibit cooperation with police investigating crimes. Recently four more officers were suspended as part of the ongoing Gun Trace Task Force scandal and an additional 500 cases now need to be reviewed by the state’s attorney. We simply cannot perpetuate the status quo’s barrier to delivering justice. It’s critical to public safety that we demonstrate the justice system is capable of correcting itself.
The questions at hand affect thousands of people and their liberty, livelihood and opportunity. Incarceration also has lasting and devastating effects on entire families and communities. The proposed legislation in Maryland and similar efforts nationwide will enable prosecutors to fulfill their legal and ethical duties to seek justice for all. Vehicles to correct past injustice are a critical part of ensuring that our criminal justice system reflects the values of fairness and equity we hold dear.
Karl A. Racine, a Democrat, is the D.C. attorney general. Miriam Aroni Krinsky spent 15 years as a federal prosecutor and is the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution.