Errors in Justice: Nature, Sources and Remedies

Brian Forst, The American University

ABSTRACT
Criminal justice policy scholars and practitioners have traditionally assessed policy in terms of crime and recidivism rates, arrests, fear of crime, evenhandedness, and costs, virtually ignoring errors in justice. As the number of innocent persons convicted increases, the criminal justice system loses due process legitimacy: citizens become more inclined to perceive injustices to the innocent. These errors may be inadvertent, such as with mistaken eyewitness testimony, or due to incompetent or unenthusiastic defense lawyers, or more sinister motives such as police tampering with or fabricating evidence to satisfy community passion or overzealous prosecutors withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense. As the number of culpable offenders set free increases, the criminal justice system loses crime control legitimacy: citizens become more inclined to perceive injustices to victims and threats to public safety and quality of life. The integrity of the justice system thus becomes threatened by the perception of ineffectualness. This paper attempts to catalogue both types of errors and develop frameworks for understanding how each is affected by various criminal justice policies and practices--including standards of evidence, police profiling, the use of forensic technology, prosecution screening standards, jury size and rules, and other factors--toward the reduction of justice errors.

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Updated 05/20/2006