Is Craig Watkins’ Conviction Integrity unit in Dallas going to fundamentally change how the justice system works? Damn, let’s hope.

So far, it’s helped exonerate 33 wrongfully-convicted inmates, and the idea of a ‘Conviction Integrity Unit’ has spread to 11 other major U.S. cities, including New York, Detroit, and Cleveland. Here’s the money quote:

“In 10 years we’ll look back and say we began a process in Texas that fundamentally changed attitudes about the whole meaning of justice in this country,” says Jeff Blackburn, founder of the Innocence Project of Texas, one of a patchwork of innocence projects across the country.

The justice system could use an overhaul — it clearly has potential connections to racist undertones and while 1,304 people were exonerated nation-wide between 1989 and 2013 (through different programs), some legal and correctional leaders think that’s barely scratching the surface of the amount of people who should be exonerated.

The whole experiment in Dallas was based on upending the “convictions-at-all-costs” culture that you often see in a DA’s office — because of the desire for advancement and promotion, among other things. Seven of his 234 attorneys quit (not a huge number, but worth noting). The concept goes back to blue-ocean leadership, in a way. That’s what Watkins did.

There are issues, of course — the Conviction Integrity Unit has never tried to exonerate someone that Watkins or the team was the prosecutor on back in the day, and when people get out, they tend to immediately sue the city, so Watkins can’t be the most popular guy in Big D — but overall, this seems like a good thing. If people are getting locked up for years for the wrong reasons — and I’m not talking about mandatory minimums, although that’s a whole ‘nother thing — they should have a chance or a path to exoneration. This gives them that, and if the legal system is supposedly predicated on fair shakes, then seeing CI Units pop up in major urban areas does seem overall positive.

Ted Bauer


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