Date: January 22nd, 2024
To: Senator Tony Luetkemeyer, Chairman, and Members of the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence
From: Gwen Smith-Moore, Criminal Justice Policy Manager, Empower Missouri
Re: Support for SB 765
As the largest and oldest anti-poverty non-profit in our state, Empower Missouri is committed to improving the quality of life for all Missouri residents through advocacy. Since our inception, Empower Missouri has focused on the criminal justice system and its impacts. Our Community Justice Coalition consists of community advocates and organizations from across the state who work with those who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. Many coalition members are formerly incarcerated or have currently incarcerated loved ones, and all are connected by a vision for a future without mass incarceration.
We are providing testimony today in support of SB 765, sponsored by Senator Brian Williams, which would establish a conviction review unit to investigate claims of actual innocence of any defendant, including those who plead guilty. This would address a pervasive issue in the criminal justice system: the unfortunate reality of wrongful convictions. In 2021, there were 161 exonerations throughout the U.S., indicating that there are likely many more incarcerated individuals in our country that are innocent of the crimes they are serving time for. There are many factors that contribute to this issue, including mitigating contributing factors, subjective assessments of information presented, unpredictable juror decision-making, and lack of complete information provided by law enforcement and witnesses. We also know that innocent defendants might plead guilty for a number of reasons, which SB 765 addresses by including cases with a guilty plea in those eligible for review.
Since 1989, Missouri has exonerated 56 people, the majority of whom were convicted of Class A Felony Murder and sexual assault. For those 56 individuals, a total of 646 years of life were spent in prison, removed from their loved ones and communities. National groups committed to the issue of wrongful convictions estimate that approximately 5% of incarcerated individuals are behind bars for a crime they did not commit. Currently in Missouri, there are just over 23,000 individuals incarcerated in Department of Corrections facilities. If the national estimates on wrongful conviction are true for our state, over 1000 incarcerated individuals in Missouri prisons might be serving time while innocent. This is clearly unacceptable, and SB 765 proposes a necessary and timely solution to truly address this injustice.
By enacting SB 765, Missouri would join a growing list of states that have established conviction integrity review units to ensure that those who have been wrongfully incarcerated have a pathway to receiving justice and returning home. States that have statewide review units include Michigan, Minnesota, Delaware, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
Empower Missouri urges this committee to take action to pass SB 765 into law. Thank you for your time and consideration of this matter.