In the past three decades, thousands of wrongfully convicted individuals have been freed from prison for crimes they never committed. The litigation of these cases has unveiled numerous systemic deficiencies within our criminal legal system that require immediate attention. The Innocence Center is a founding member and works as part of the California Innocence Coalition (CIC) to advocate for systemic reforms regarding wrongful convictions, making it a top priority for the California Legislature.  These policy efforts have had a profound impact on the criminal legal system in California and beyond.

The California Innocence Coalition (CIC) consists of four Innocence Network members in California, The Innocence Center, the Northern California Innocence Project, the Loyola Project for the Innocent, and the Los Angeles Innocence Project. The missions of the organizations are to protect the rights of the innocent by litigating their cases to bring them home and to promote a fair and effective criminal legal system by advocating for change in California laws and policy. 

The California Innocence Coalition’s three-part mission is to craft and pass legislation to prevent wrongful convictions from occurring, create avenues of relief for those wrongfully incarcerated, and empower exonerated people once they come home. Since 2016, CIC has successfully passed over a dozen laws. 

Preventing Wrongful Convictions

Ensuring that the criminal legal system operates fairly and equitably is a fundamental aspect of democracy. Legislation aimed at preventing wrongful convictions promotes fairness by reducing the likelihood of individuals being unfairly targeted or convicted due to their race, age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or other characteristics.

Reforming and Standardizing Eyewitness Identification (Senate Bill 923)

Over the past three decades, research has profoundly changed our understanding of eyewitness misidentification, which continues to be a primary factor contributing to wrongful convictions nationwide. A multitude of studies have consistently demonstrated that flawed or misleading eyewitness identification procedures can greatly distort an eyewitness’s recollection and testimony, leading sincere witnesses to mistakenly identify innocent individuals in court.

SB 923 requires all law enforcement agencies and prosecutorial entities to comply with regulations for photo lineups and live lineups with eyewitnesses to improve the reliability of suspect identifications. Failure to use these practices increases the risk of mistaken identifications and wrongful convictions.

Prohibiting Law Enforcement From Using Deception and Manipulative Tactics on People 17 Years Old and Younger (Assembly Bill 2644)

According to the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth (CWCY), false confessions are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions, accounting for roughly 25% of all convictions that were later overturned based on DNA evidence. Juries view a confession as a significant piece of direct evidence of one’s guilt, yet struggle with understanding how someone might falsely implicate themselves or another in criminal conduct. The reality is that law enforcement’s use of deceptive interrogation methods, such as threats, physical harm, deception, or psychologically manipulative tactics as defined in AB 2644, creates an incredibly high risk for eliciting a false confession from anyone, and particularly youth.

AB 2644 prohibits the use of threats, physical harm, deception, or psychologically manipulative tactics by law enforcement during an interrogation of a young person who is 17 years of age or younger. AB 2644 also states that these limitations do not apply to interrogations where the office reasonably believed the information sought was necessary to protect life or property from imminent harm and the questions were limited to those reasonably necessary to obtain information related to that imminent threat.

Creating Avenues of Relief for Innocent Incarcerated People

California held the reputation as the most stringent state nationwide when it came to granting relief to wrongfully convicted individuals and vindicating their innocence. However, the California Innocence Coalition has effectively advocated for numerous policy reforms within the legislature, streamlining the process for innocent individuals to prove their innocence and overturn their convictions.

New Evidence of Innocence (Senate Bill 1134 and Senate Bill 97)

In the past, California posed the greatest challenge for innocent individuals incarcerated. If one unearthed new evidence of innocence—such as DNA proof implicating another individual in the crime—there existed a chance that their conviction couldn’t be overturned due to the excessively stringent standards for relief.

SB 1134 and SB 97 made the standard to prove your innocence with new evidence more fair and just, eliminating unnecessary hurdles to freedom.

Challenging Junk Science (Senate Bill 1058 and Senate Bill 467)

Science and its accomplishments are inherently dynamic, constantly evolving and refining. What we once deemed as thoroughly comprehended can frequently be overturned by emerging scientific breakthroughs. This phenomenon is especially evident within forensic science, where various disciplines such as bullet lead analysis, forensic odontology, and even friction ridge analysis (fingerprints) have recently faced challenges or been deemed scientifically unreliable.

SB 1058 aids wrongfully incarcerated individuals by allowing outdated expert testimonies on false evidence to overturn convictions if the expert recants their testimony or if it has later been undermined by scientific research or technological advancements. 

SB 467 created a new standard of relief by which an innocent person, who was tried under a scientific theory that has since been proven to be false, can have their conviction reversed so they can be tried again using the current state of the science. 

Access to Evidence Post-Conviction (Senate Bill 651 and Assembly Bill 1987)

After your conviction, your rights to get access to the evidence of your innocence is severely curtailed.  Prosecutors, judges, and government officials will only allow you to find out about evidence if the law permits them to provide that information to you.

AB 1987 provides more reasonable and timely access to discovery materials post-conviction. It also requires trial counsel to retain a copy of a client’s files for the term of imprisonment where a person is convicted of a serious or violent felony resulting in a sentence of 15 years or more.

SB 651 extends the right to post-conviction discovery to a larger number of convicted incarcerated people. AB 1987 made the law only applicable to individuals convicted from January 1, 2019, forward, lessening the impact of the legislation which was to benefit those currently convicted and in post-conviction proceedings.

Post-Conviction DNA Testing (Senate Bill  980)

Due to its undeniable reliability, DNA evidence stands out as one of the most convincing forms of proof to establish innocence and overturn convictions. However, for a considerable period, incarcerated individuals were deprived of the opportunity to request DNA testing post-conviction. In numerous instances, they were even unable to ascertain if the evidence from their case still existed for such testing.

SB 980 improves the process for incarcerated people to obtain DNA testing regarding their case. SB 980 extends the time inmates can respond to DNA evidence from 60 to 90 days and enables courts to access the State Index System, and if appropriate, the Federal DNA Index System (CODIS), to see if the DNA in their case matches the true perpetrator or perpetrators.

Preserving DNA Evidence (Assembly Bill 2988)

With advancing sophistication and precision in DNA testing, previously disregarded or deteriorated evidence can now yield astonishing outcomes. However, the utility of DNA evidence hinges upon the existence of the evidence itself and its subsequent testing.

AB 2988 requires the appropriate governmental entity to preserve any object or material that contains or includes biological material and that notice of intent to destroy be sent to the incarcerated person.

Empowering Exonerated People

Wrongful convictions are often portrayed in movies as a story of exoneration followed by happily-ever-after endings. However, the reality is starkly different. Many exonerated people struggle to readjust to life outside prison after spending years, sometimes decades, behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit. The California Innocence Coalition strives to enact laws and policies aimed at aiding exonerated people in rebuilding their lives and moving forward after their wrongful convictions.

Changing Compensation for the Better (Senate Bill 618)

Since 1905, California has allowed people who have been wrongfully incarcerated the opportunity to be compensated. All iterations of compensation statutes have the exonerated person prove their innocence all over again in front of an administrative board, the California Victim Compensation Board (CalVCB). The process to get that compensation, however, was difficult and lengthy, and many exonerated people were often denied compensation even after a court had found them innocent. 

SB 618 gives wrongfully convicted individuals the right to seek compensation after presenting evidence that shows undeniable innocence in Superior Court. If the exonerated person is granted compensation in Superior Court through this process, that decision is binding on CalVCB.

Increasing Compensation Amounts (Senate Bill 635)

What price would you put on enduring a year in prison for a crime you didn’t commit? To miss holidays with your family, your children’s graduations, and the chance to visit your parents one last time? Compensation cannot replace these lost moments, but it does provide exonerated individuals with the means to rebuild their lives and reintegrate into society after their wrongful incarceration.

SB 635 increases compensation from $100 to $140 for each day an exonerated person spent wrongfully incarcerated.

Extending Compensation Deadlines (Senate Bill 269)

Upon their release, exonerated people are immediately confronted with pressing needs and priorities that demand their attention—such as securing housing, employment, and reestablishing connections with friends and family. Meeting these basic needs becomes a significant challenge for exonerated people, leaving them with limited time and resources to pursue compensation from the state until their immediate concerns are resolved.

SB 269 extends the statute of limitations upon which a person can bring a compensation claim from two years to ten years after judgment of acquittal, dismissal of charges, pardon granted, or release from custody, whichever is later.

Transitional Services for Exonerated People (Senate Bill 336)

For a considerable period, having a conviction reversed posed more challenges than being correctly convicted and subsequently paroled in many respects. Parolees, individuals who committed the crime and were released into the parole system, had access to housing programs, job opportunities tailored for parolees, and various other services. In contrast, exonerated people received no support, not even the $200 gate money provided to parolees upon their release from prison.

SB 336 expands the eligibility of wrongfully convicted individuals to receive transitional services after their release from prison.