A Behind-the-Scenes Look at MAIP’s Screening Process

Screening Manager Jenn Kamorowski and Paralegal Victor Wright work on screening cases.

Screening is the first step toward overturning a wrongful conviction. Every year, MAIP receives an average of 300 requests for assistance from incarcerated people who have claims of innocence. MAIP’s screening team reviews each request to determine whether there is a viable claim of innocence. Due to the high volume of applications, it can take weeks to months to screen each request and determine how to proceed. But wrongfully convicted people have already lost years of their lives to prison, and time waiting for a response is more time spent wrongfully incarcerated. Our screening team, led by Screening Manager Jenn Kamorowski, has made several improvements to our screening process so that we can help more innocent clients and reduce the time that they spend waiting for assistance.

Redesigning the Questionnaire

After we receive a request, we send back a questionnaire. This questionnaire asks the potential client for detailed information about their case and their claim of innocence. “We’ve redesigned our questionnaire to make it easier to complete,” said Jenn. “Instead of asking clients to write everything out, we switched to checkboxes.” As a result, our questionnaire is more accessible— for example, people who may find it difficult to express themselves in writing will have an easier time filling it out. We also ensure that people who have viable innocence claims are not overlooked because they may face barriers that impact their ability to complete the questionnaire.

The questions we ask potential clients are crucial to gain a better understanding of what causes wrongful convictions and how we can prevent them. As part of the redesign, we have added a few new questions to our questionnaire. “We ask clients for which crimes they were charged and for which ones they were convicted,” Jenn said. “Overcharging or piling on charges may give an appearance of guilt, but what really matters is what the prosecution can prove. We have never collected the data to examine this issue before.” We also ask potential clients about mitigating factors, such as being a juvenile at the time of conviction, mental health issues, childhood trauma, and learning disabilities. These factors make people particularly vulnerable to police coercion and deception, as well as false confessions. Analyzing the data may help identify whether patterns of individual characteristics contribute to wrongful convictions.

Refining the Process

Once we receive a completed questionnaire, we begin pre-screening, or an initial reading of the questionnaire and any case documents that the potential client has provided. Based on this reading, we may request additional documents through a Freedom of Information Act request submitted to the police and prosecutorial agencies that investigated and prosecuted the case. Obtaining these documents can be challenging. “We sometimes encounter resistance from government or law enforcement agencies,” said Jenn. “Nonetheless, we have shifted much of document acquisition to happen earlier in the screening process so that the case record we send to screeners is as complete as possible.”

We could not do our work without the commitment of our nearly 800 volunteer screeners. Screeners can perform four different types of case screening: prescreening, Brady screening, non-Brady screening, and reconsideration cases. Brady screening is aimed at uncovering potential Brady violations, which occur when the prosecution fails to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense. Reconsideration screening reexamines the cases of people whom MAIP has previously rejected, but who have asked us to reconsider their case. Prescreening and reconsideration screening are new opportunities MAIP has recently made available to our volunteers.

If a case is not rejected at pre-screening, we ask a team of four screeners to further evaluate the case in its entirety. Each screener then writes a memo with their recommendation about whether to accept the case for further investigation or to reject it. “We want to make sure that our screeners are equipped with everything they need,” Jenn said. Our screeners can now access a library of training videos and memo templates for each type of screening. Jenn, a former professor, has also opened “office hours”: weekly Zoom drop-in sessions during which screeners can ask screening and case-related questions.

Looking Ahead

In the future, we hope to build a case-screening model that other innocence organizations can use. There are six major factors that contribute to wrongful convictions. By isolating these factors at the beginning of the screening process, we can better study their interplay and how to prevent them. In addition, our screening team is experimenting to discover ways in which automation can help the innocence movement. To achieve that goal, we are working on automating basic but repetitive tasks, such as sending automatic confirmations of receipt to initial requests for assistance. “We hope to create a scalable automation model that saves time on tedious tasks, so innocence organizations can devote more time litigating cases and talking to clients,” said Jenn.

Connecting with clients is the most rewarding part of our work. “It’s always gratifying and humbling when, at the end of a legal call, a client thanks MAIP for listening and giving them the opportunity to tell their story,” Jenn said. “Their voices are not just lost in the depths of prison—we are here to hear their cries for help.” With our improved screening process, we can listen to and help many more wrongfully convicted people.