Dallas DNA

A reality show about getting innocent people out of prison? This really is a new day!

The Discovery Channel now has a documentary series based on the unit of the Dallas County DA’s office that does its own investigations of possibly innocent people in prison, rather than stonewalling demands for DNA checks as so many prosecutors’ offices do.

The unit is a transparently good idea, and every major DA’s office ought to have one. If I were a Governor or a state Attorney General, I’d establish a statewide office to boot; Eric Holder might consider creating a similar unit within the Justice Department (to cover state as well as federal prisoners). The exoneration of the innocent is every bit as much a part of the prosecutor’s job as the conviction of the guilty, and having such units, equipped with the power to subpoena evidence and witnesses, would help put a check on over-enthusiastic cops and prosecutors.

I wonder whether the TV show reflects a change in the political climate regarding crime? When I was growing up, there were shows where the defense lawyers were the heroes: Perry Mason and The Defenders. But after the crime surge of the 1960s, it was wall-to-wall cop shows, in which all defendants were guilty and defense lawyers were pond scum. Perhaps the folks who run the Discovery Channel sense a change in public attitudes, and having shows such as this one will help move that change along.

Of course, the overwhelming majority of defendants are guilty. But the exceptions matter.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com