March 23, 2023
Contact: Mitch Schwartz, (914) 330-1026
State Assembly Passes the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act
Major step toward giving wrongfully-convicted New Yorkers the chance to prove their innocence
ALBANY–The New York State Assembly passed the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act (S. 215 / A. 2878) yesterday, a major step toward giving wrongfully-convicted New Yorkers a chance to clear their name. The Act improves the existing framework in New York State that only allows those who pleaded guilty to file a claim of actual innocence if DNA evidence emerges – a framework that few cases can meet, even as huge numbers of people plead guilty when they did not commit the crime.
The Act, whose lead sponsors include Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry and Senator Zellnor Myrie, has now passed the Assembly for two consecutive years. It is featured on the Justice Roadmap and was included in the “People’s Budget” of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus.
“We are thrilled that the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act has advanced through the Assembly – passage of this bill into law would correct an injustice that has stained New York’s jurisprudence for a number of years, and would make it possible – again – for people who plead guilty but do not have the benefit of DNA evidence in their cases, to pursue innocence claims. A full 20% of the more than 3000 people who were exonerated of wrongful convictions were innocent people who pled guilty to crimes they did not commit. It is shocking that New York has foreclosed justice for innocent people who plead guilty for this long but this legislation would at long last correct this injustice,” said Rebecca Brown, Director of Policy, Innocence Project.
“I want to thank the Assembly for being courageous to pass the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act. This bill would address the inequalities of wrongful convictions and help individuals who were wrongful convicted of crimes languishing in prison. This issue must be addressed once and for all and I’m calling on the Senate to do the same immediately,” Roger Clark, Community Leader at VOCAL-NY.
New York, which is a national outlier in barring people who pleaded guilty from claiming innocence, has the third highest number of wrongful convictions in the United States. This rule stems from a 2018 Court of Appeals case that barred people who are legally innocent, but who plead guilty under the threat of jail or prison time, from vacating their convictions without DNA evidence. Fewer than 10 percent of criminal cases produce such evidence.
The Act improves this process by:
- Removing the guilty plea bar on actual innocence claims when there is credible new, non-DNA evidence of wrongful conviction;
- Providing a right to post-conviction discovery; and
- Establishing a right to counsel for those with wrongful conviction claims. New York is one of just five states in the U.S. that does not provide a right to attorney in post-conviction cases, trailing states like Texas and Alabama.
“When our laws change, we must consider the lingering effects of our old laws and how they may still be harming people,” said Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry. “For too long, our justice system incentivized plea bargains over trials, and we must ensure that individuals who may have been pressured into plea bargains as a result of that system have the same rights to redress. We must update our laws to ensure that anyone wrongfully or improperly convicted of a crime is able to clear their name, once and for all.”
In New York and across the country, many innocent people plead guilty because they are coerced, don’t think they can win at trial, or face incredibly harsh penalties if they elect to go to trial. Nationally, 97 percent of criminal cases are resolved through guilty pleas and 1 in 4 wrongfully convicted Americans who were later exonerated pleaded guilty.