MORRIS COUNTY — The New Jersey Senate has passed bipartisan legislation sponsored by Senator Joe Pennacchio and Senator Shirley Turner to create a commission that would develop reforms and create a pathway to justice for those who have been wrongfully convicted in New Jersey.
“Our innocence commission would address a wide variety of issues facing people who have been wrongfully convicted – from reintegrating back into society, to getting the compensation they deserve,” Senator Pennacchio explained. “The commission would also consider establishing a permanent panel that could review cases when our system fails.
“Innocent people should not spend a single day behind bars, but it happens all the time – even in New Jersey. I hope that our colleagues in the Assembly will listen to the stories we have shed light on throughout our journey to pass this bill. These people shouldn’t have to wait a moment longer for justice,” Pennacchio added.
Senators Pennacchio and Turner introduced S-406 more than a year ago, following reports of wrongful conviction cases in New Jersey. The legislators have worked diligently with advocates and exonerated prisoners to highlight the need for their commission.
“Being forced to plead guilty, knowing you’re innocent, is one of the worst things that could happen to an innocent person,” Rodney Roberts, a New Jersey exoneree whose story has been highlighted by the Innocence Project, said. “But it happens more than you think. Then to find out later that, despite being exonerated, your guilty plea will keep you from getting compensation, is like being punished a second time for a crime you didn’t commit.”
Nationwide, more than 2,000 wrongfully convicted persons have been exonerated since 1989, according to the National Registry on Exonerations. However, the Registry estimates that there are tens of thousands of false convictions annually, with many more piling up over time.
“Nothing can return the time lost with loved ones or milestones missed when a wrongful conviction steals years from an innocent person’s life,” Senator Turner (D-15). “While we often consider the impact this has on an individual’s personal life, we need to remember it also stifles their potential lifetime earnings as well as threatening the financial security of themselves and their families. This legislation will help us identify how to prevent wrongful convictions and create an avenue to better address wrongful convictions when they do occur. We must do everything in our power to ensure those who have been wrongfully convicted are given justice, restorations, and the tools they need to successfully reenter society.”
About Pennacchio/Turner’s S-406: “The New Jersey Innocence Study and Review Commission”
The “New Jersey Innocence Study and Review Commission,” as established by S-406, would review all aspects of criminal cases involving wrongful conviction in New Jersey and recommend reforms to reduce the likelihood of wrongful conviction occurring in the future.
Under S-406, the commission must consider a specific recommendation for establishing a permanent panel before which a person who believes they have been the victim of a wrongful conviction could request a review of their own conviction, including those that are currently incarcerated.
The commission’s responsibilities would also include:
- Identifying the main causes of wrongful conviction and studying existing research on these causes;
- Recommending best practices to appropriate constituencies
- Examining the existing system of restitution to compensate wrongfully convicted persons
- Studying successful programs that assist with reintegration back into society following release
S-406 has received the support of a number of advocates, including Lesley Risinger, the founder and director of The Last Resort Exoneration Project at Seton Hall Law School, which provides pro-bono legal and investigative services to wrongfully convicted people in New Jersey.
“Conviction of the innocent is an abject failure of any criminal justice system,” Risinger said. “Creating the New Jersey Innocence Study and Review Commission would be an important step in addressing this problem. We believe in a collaborative approach that should take into account the views of all who have participated in the exoneration of the innocent in New Jersey, as well as the views and experiences of the exonerated innocent themselves. If this bill passes, we will of course stand ready to assist the commission as they move forward to study the ways in which our criminal justice system fails the innocent, both before and after conviction, and we look forward to providing our insights on measures to alleviate this problem.”
The legislation has also received the support of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference.
“The New Jersey State Conference of the NAACP is in full support of Senate Bill 406 which looks to create the New Jersey Innocence Study and Review Commission,” Safeer Z. Quraishi, administrative director of the NJ NAACP, said. “It is obvious that nobody should feel the devastating effects of incarceration if they did not commit the crime. We are looking forward to seeing the recommendations made by the Commission to reduce wrongful incarceration in New Jersey.”
“Rodney Roberts languished in prison for 17 years. AJ Nash was there for 10. This is a travesty of the highest magnitude. Policy changes like bail reform are meaningless, if we aren’t solving the systemic issues that allow innocent people to stay locked up,” Pennacchio added. “Our search for justice should know no bounds. Now that our bill has passed the Senate, I hope that the Assembly will take up the measure immediately. If this isn’t a time sensitive piece of legislation, I don’t know what is.”