Wrongful conviction bill must be passed by the State Legislature
It is hard to imagine a scenario more chilling than being accused, then convicted, of a crime you did not commit.
Yet it happens on Long Island more than most of us would like to admit. New Hour for Women and Children-Long Island is dedicated to fighting for families and communities, and we are calling on Long Islanders to help us create a path to exoneration for innocent people.
Since 1989, 18 people have been exonerated for crimes they did not commit on Long Island. Some were wrongfully imprisoned for decades before clearing their names.
Keith Bush served 33 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He was just a young Black boy when he was targeted by police, arrested, and accused of murder at the age of 17. He maintained his innocence from the beginning, but was ignored. He fought for 44 years to prove it, but because of our current flawed system of exoneration, justice did not find him until the Suffolk County Conviction Integrity Bureau finally investigated the case and proved his innocence. New Hour has continued to support his family, yet the pain of his absence has been overwhelming for them.
This year, the State Legislature is considering a bill called the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act that would offer people like Bush a working pathway to exoneration. The legislation would have given him the right to see the evidence in the case — evidence that would have proved his innocence if he hadn’t had to wait 44 years to review it. He would have been provided the right to an attorney and the right to a hearing.
The bill is based on the New Jersey system, which has been in place for decades. New Jersey law allows people to request post-conviction counsel to assess whether they have any viable claims for relief and, if so, to file an appeal. If New Jersey can provide innocent people a way to clear their names, why can’t New York?
Incarceration has a devastating impact on families and communities. Children grow up without parents and face multiple barriers to future success because the parent-child bond is so often severed. Women and men frequently come home after incarceration sicker, at an economic disadvantage, and in dire need of additional support to stabilize themselves. Certainly, the support of New Hour can mitigate some harm. But as long as wrongful convictions exist, our most vulnerable communities will continue to suffer.
While 18 people have cleared their names, many more innocent people remain in prison. Nationwide, the National Registry of Exonerations reports more than 3,100 people have been exonerated since 1989 — after being imprisoned a total of 27,000 years. Typically, wrongful convictions include people coerced into taking plea deals, especially people of color, just because they “fit the description.” Ending wrongful convictions is, in many ways, a long overdue racial justice measure. Indeed, innocent Black people spend an average of 13.8 years wrongfully imprisoned, 45% longer than white exonerees.
Polling by Data for Progress found that a majority of Democrats, independents and Republicans support legislation to mitigate wrongful convictions. At the very least, we must ensure that innocent New Yorkers are provided the same due process protections they receive in states like New Jersey, Texas, and North Carolina. It’s time for Long Islanders to support the Challenging Wrongful Convictions Act and insist that this overdue reform is passed this year.
This guest essay reflects the views of Serena Martin-Liguori, executive director of New Hour for Women and Children-Long Island.