A new unit at the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office will “review and reevaluate past convictions to ensure justice.”
Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced this week the creation of the statewide Conviction Integrity Unit, which will work with district attorneys, law enforcement agencies, and crime victims.
“This unit provides a mechanism for the review of cases to make sure justice was served, and if not, to right the wrongs of our imperfect system,” Shapiro said. “This is critically important work and our focus will be to collaborate with Pennsylvania counties lacking the necessary resources to properly revisit and analyze past convictions.”
The new unit will be headed by former Somerset County District Attorney Lisa Lazzari-Strasiser, who previously also served as a public defender.
“Those of us in law enforcement are working hard to keep communities safe and ensure that the system is working fairly,” said Lazzari-Straisser. “Having been the former public defender for Cambria County and the former district attorney for Somerset County, I can tell you it is the responsibility of prosecutors to pursue justice and correct past mistakes, even when those mistakes are made by law enforcement.”
Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub said he supports the creation of the unit.
“All convictions must be able to withstand scrutiny from secondary and outside sources. When it comes to convictions, there is no margin for error. We must get it right. It is unacceptable for me for even one innocent person to have been wrongfully convicted. And this unit will hopefully further insure that it does not occur,” Weintraub said.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office already has their own Conviction Integrity Unit, which has led to 10 exonerations as of last year.
In recent years, the University of Pennsylvania conducted a survey of 3,000 state inmates and 6 percent reported being wrongfully convicted, according to a 2018 article from the Journal of Quantitative Criminology.
Kristine Hamann, executive director and founder of Prosecutors’ Center for Excellence, said commended the attorney general’s office for the creation of the unit.
“No justice system can be successful without the trust of the public,” she said. “The willingness of Pennsylvania prosecutors to conduct a fearless, critical review of past convictions underscores their commitment to the pursuit of justice – both proactive and retrospective. The people of Pennsylvania are well served by this initiative.”
Marissa Bluestine, assistant director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said the statewide unit will help smaller counties look at past troublesome convictions.
“No prosecutor wants an innocent person in prison. This unit offers county prosecutors wanting to achieve justice the resources to review past convictions – an undertaking requiring many hours and devotion to looking behind a conviction,” she said.