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Learning From Error in American Criminal Justice

NCJ Number
Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology Volume: 100 Issue: 1 Dated: 2010 Pages: 109-148
James M. Doyle
Date Published
40 pages
This article discusses criminal justice practitioners increased willingness to examine and learn from their errors, and to determine where these efforts will lead.
In 1998 the U.S. Department of Justice published a study that examined wrongful convictions exposed through DNA testing highlighting mistakes made by criminal justice practitioners in obtaining these convictions. This publication led to the founding of the Innocence Project, an initiative aimed at finding and overturning wrongful convictions through the use of DNA testing. This article uses these efforts to examine efforts by criminal justice practitioners to learn from their mistakes and improve the delivery of justice. The article begins with an overview of the changes that occurred in the criminal justice system following publication of the 1998 study. As more wrongful conviction cases came to light, the criminal justice system began implementing reforms that were based more on science instead of tradition. The article then examines how these reforms point to a shift in the operations of the criminal justice system, from a retrospective, adversary inspection model of quality of control to one that incorporates continuous quality improvement in its reform efforts. The author examines how quality improvement efforts in the field of medicine were derived from those used in the fields of aviation and industrial investigations, and how these efforts can be used in the same way to improve the criminal justice system. The final section of the article discusses the need for the criminal justice system to have a workable facility to collect and disseminate detailed, reliable, and factual accounts of helpful errors.