The Cost of False Confessions
IT HAS BEEN FIVE YEARS since a commission made up of prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges and others presented its startling report detailing holes in California’s criminal justice system and making recommendations on how to mend them. One of the biggest problems the experts found was dozens of false confessions — assertions by people under interrogation that they had committed crimes when in fact they had not.
The same panel reported that some jurisdictions, including some California counties and cities, had successfully responded to the surprisingly common phenomenon. They videotaped the custodial interviews. The recordings could be examined later for clues that confessions were a result of police or prosecutorial badgering, or that suspects were psychologically unfit or in a condition that made their statements unreliable.
The solution made sense not just to defense lawyers but also to prosecutors, who are honor-bound not to simply rack up wins at any cost but to make certain that the defendants they are prosecuting really did commit the crimes. Recording is also good for the interviewing police officers, who would have a ready defense against any false claims of misconduct.
But California failed again and again to require the video recording of confessions, sometimes because prosecutors didn’t want to be told that they might be wrong, sometimes because the state just didn’t have enough money to make its justice system work properly. And it’s true that requiring recording would mean spending for equipment, maintenance and monitoring, and the Legislature has been correctly wary of any bills that would result in new spending.
But false confessions are costly too, not just for those who confess to things they did not do but to their families, to the families of victims and to the court system that proceeds with trials on the incorrect assumption that it has the right defendants. Moreover, of course, false confessions result in real perpetrators going free, imposing a public safety cost as well.
Lawmakers this year considered SB 569, a narrowly tailored bill that would require video recording of custodial interviews with minors, whose rate of false confessions is higher than that of adult suspects. The bill was sent to the Assembly’s suspense file, and it has just a week before it can be revived or else join the slew of bills that have been voted down or vetoed.
This is not the only bill stuck in suspense, and lawmakers will have to judge carefully what to do with all of them in the coming week. This one deserves passage. It’s a modest step with costs that are also modest, when compared with the unacceptable damage to a justice system that doesn’t know or care whether it has the right defendant on trial.