Innocence organizations applaud Illinois Senate for passage of legislation to regulate use of jailhouse informants
(Springfield, IL -- May 5, 2017) -- Today, the Illinois Senate unanimously passed legislation in a 49-0 vote that would protect the innocent from wrongful convictions through safeguards to improve the reliability of jailhouse informant testimony.
Senate Bill 1830, which was proposed by both the Innocence Project and the Illinois Innocence Project and filed by lead sponsor Senator Michael E. Hastings and chief co-sponsor, Senator Patricia Van Pelt, aims to prevent wrongful convictions by requiring pre-trial reliability hearings of jailhouse informant testimony and require a judge to determine the veracity and credibility of informants.
An in-custody or jailhouse informant is someone who claims to have knowledge of admissions made to him or her by a criminal suspect while being detained with that suspect, and offers such knowledge in exchange for some incentive provided by law enforcement or the prosecution.
Under the bill, prosecutors are also required to disclose any intent to introduce informant testimony at least 30 days prior to the hearing.
Illinois has led the way in regulating informants as it passed its first such law in 2003, but that law only applied to capital cases. Since the death penalty was abolished in 2011, the law was rendered effectively moot. This bill would bring that law back to life by expanding its scope to provide much needed regulation of jailhouse informants in the most serious crime categories such as homicide, aggravated sexual assault and aggravated arson.
"Cases in Illinois are showing us that you get what you pay for. If you incentivize testimony, people are likely to lie and innocent people go to jail. Sending the wrong person to prison does not make our neighborhoods any safer," said Senator Michael E. Hastings (D-Tinley Park).
"We are very pleased that the Illinois Senate has approved of this legislation. The false testimony of jailhouse informants has proven to be of particular concern in this state, where it has been utilized in many of the highest-profile cases of wrongful conviction," said John Hanlon, executive director and legal director of the Illinois Innocence Project. "We are grateful to The Innocence Project for their assistance with this legislation, and we look forward to the bill continuing to move forward through the legislative process until it becomes law."
Professor Alexandra Natapoff of Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, is a national expert on the use of criminal informants and has helped draft numerous pieces of state and federal legislation. "This is an exciting reform," she added. "Reliability hearings are one of the most promising methods for reducing informant fabrications. These hearings encourage full disclosure, and they give the court better tools for protecting the integrity of the criminal process."
Incentivized informant testimony is notoriously unreliable, and is a contributing factor in 17 percent of the 349 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence. Incentives, which range from leniency on punishment, modified accommodations, change in correctional facility, or money or other material goods provided to the informant or to his or her family, can serve to corrupt testimony and can encourage falsehoods. The passage and implementation of SB 1830 would help ensure accuracy and transparency in the criminal justice system.
"We are incredibly grateful to Senator Hastings and the entire Senate as they have demonstrated that Illinois cares deeply about reliability in the criminal justice system. This bill will add necessary protections to ensure the reliability of jailhouse informants and protect the innocent. We look forward to working with the House of Representatives and stakeholders to ensure this bill passes the full legislature and becomes law," said Amol Sinha, State Policy Advocate for the Innocence Project which is affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law in New York, NY.
The Innocence Project and the Illinois Innocence Project are hopeful the House of Representatives will now act swiftly to enact these necessary protections.
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