Literature review: public perception of exonerees

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Introduction This literature review aims to provide an insight into recent research, from both overseas and Australia, that examines public perception of exonerees. The importance of public opinion lies in it’s potential to help shape policy and reform in the justice system, and legislation regarding issues such as compensation and rectification for innocents after wrongful convictions. As Zalman et al(2012) have noted, nothing questions the legitimacy of the justice system more than wrongful conviction. In recent years, in many countries around the world, the issue of wrongful convictions of innocent individuals has increasingly been recognized, to the extent that it is viewed as a human rights issue(Weathered, 2013) This in turn has led to an increasing focus on whether criminal justice systems are equipped with systems that adequately review, and compensate wrongful convictions.(Weathered,2013).The harm suffered by exonerees and their families may continue once they return to society, and can also be affected by public perceptions and possible stigma, which may impact their capacity to gain employment and housing, affect their health and further damage their quality of life and chances of reintegration into society.

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In response to the problem of wrongful convictions, in the United States, the Innocence Project utilized DNA evidence to exonerate those wrongly convicted. Currently the National Registry of Exonerations in the United States lists 1568 known exonerations, beginning from the year 1989(https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/about.aspx). By 2013 the lobbying of Innocence Projects across the country led to legislation for DNA Innocence testing in all states. In recent years similar Innocence Projects have been set up in other countries , creating the Innocence Network. Australia is one of those countries, with Innocence Projects in several states. The United Kingdom responded with the government funded Criminal Cases Review Commission, an independent body , that by 2015 had seen 378 convictions quashed. http://www.justice.gov.uk/about/criminal-cases-review-commission. Some states in Australia have introduced a new appeal avenue, and Innocence DNA testing, to assist in limiting wrongful convictions, but there is still a need for further reform. At present there is no automatic procedure to compensate exonerees or to remove the quashed conviction from their records( Weathered,2013). Research into the issues surrounding public perceptions of exonerees and wrongful conviction can assist in the formulation of recommendations for policy and legislative reform.

In the Canadian paper ‘Pubic Perception of Wrongful Conviction: Support for Compensation and Apologies”, Clow et al.2011, researchers used face to face interviews with fifteen community members, whom they approached at a variety of coffee shops in a South Central Ontario city, to gauge public perceptions around whether wrongfully convicted individuals deserved compensation and apologies . The data used for the paper was taken from a section of a wider survey on the same subject area, and focused mainly on four particular areas: (1) Should exonerees receive compensation; (2)perception of compensation being offered; (3) factors that should influence compensation; and (4) should wrongly convicted individuals receive an apology. Interviewees unanimously supported the compensation and apologies for wrongfully convicted persons. Compensation for exonerees was seen to be needed not just financially but in the areas of employment and housing. Public apologies were seen as assisting to restore the wrongfully convicted persons reputational damage and standing in the community, and to help restore public faith in the justice system. Researchers concluded that government may be induced to offer compensation and public apologies to exonerees if further research into public perceptions supported the outcomes of their study. (Clow et al.2011).

Isabella Blandisis conducted a wider study and interpreted results using Giddens structuration theory. She found that participants were aware that exonerees experienced stigmatization upon release, but participants themselves had a positive attitude to the wrongfully convicted. It was identified that more study on stigmatization of exonerees were necessary. Participants showed an awareness of many of the factors that might lead to wrongful imprisonment, such as mistaken eyewitness identification, false confession, tunnel vision, stereotyping and prejudice. When asked about what factors participants would take into consideration in relation to compensation, almost all thought length of time in prison was a major factor. The majority felt that compensation and public apology were necessary (Blandisi, 2012). The intentional law breaking of police officers and prosecutors to deliberately bring about wrongful convictions is another issue for public concern (Naughton, 2014) ). Using correspondence bias as a theoretical framework , Thompson et al, also looked at the stigma experienced by exonerees versus stigma and discrimination directed at parolees. The researchers found that although exonerees do suffer from stigmatization, it is not to the degree that parolees suffer , and this another factor for the wrongly convicted to cope with when trying to re integrate into society(Thompson et al,2012)

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In relation to compensation for wrongfully convicted, Norris(2012) notes that of the first 250 individuals who have been exonerated since 1989 in the United States, only 40% have been able to gain compensation or other support to assist with re enty into society. He notes that although awareness of the problem of wrongful conviction have increased, policies to right these wrongs have not adequately been made. His content analysis showed that only a little over half the States in the U.S had existing statutes for compensation of wrongfully convicted, and that the assistance offered varied widely. In order for compensation legislation needed to brought more to the attention of the public ( Norris,2012) In their research, Mandery et. Al found that most of the states that did have statutes made it difficult to access payments. Using a data set of exonerees these researchers found that whether an exoneree received an adequate compensation could be seen to impact rates of re offending, and questioned whether compensation might be viewed as a crime prevention tool. This research again highlights the growing awareness that government are not doing enough to redress the situation of exonerees, and are failing to respond to the problems caused by the failures of the criminal justice system.(Mandery et al, 2013)

When Kimberley Clow and Rosemary Ricciardelli reviewed research regarding public perception of wrongful conviction they focused their interest on research findings that suggested that Canadians had a good understanding that ‘wrongful conviction’ meant factual innocence, and thought that exonerees deserved to receive compensation and apologies. Research indicated the public felt that many were not compensated, and believed that government should do more in regard to rectifying wrongful convictions.(Clow and Ricciardelli,2012)

In conclusion, the research seems to indicate that although there may be some stigmatization of exonerees, the overall public perception of the wrongly convicted is positive. The research suggests that there is a belief that compensation, support and public apologies should be made to the wrongly convicted. Participants recognized that there were many factors that could contribute to a wrongful conviction, and also recognized that wrongful conviction meant factual innocence. They expressed the view that there are too many flaws in the justice system, and that government is not doing enough to assist exonerees to re enter society. Overall there is an argument that further research can help raise public awareness and influence public perceptions, which may in turn influence policy and legislation reform, to try to eliminate further instances of wrongful conviction, and also to ensure that exonerees receive timely and adequate support and compensation.