At any given time, as many as 300 individuals in New Jersey may be locked up for a crime they did not commit.

A proposed state law, already advanced by one house of the New Jersey Legislature, aims to get a better handle on wrongful conviction cases, and prevent additional life-shattering mistakes from occurring in the future.

The New Jersey Innocence Study and Review Commission, unanimously green-lighted by the state Senate, would be charged with developing reforms and creating a pathway to justice for those who've spent any time in prison for a crime someone else committed.

"Our innocence commission would address a wide variety of issues facing people who have been wrongfully convicted — from reintegrating back into society, to getting the compensation they deserve," said state Sen. Joe Pennacchio, R-Morris, a primary sponsor of the measure along with Democratic state Sen. Shirley Turner, of Mercer County.

According to the Exoneration Project at Seton Hall University of Law, a conservative estimate would suggest that approximately 58 men and women are wrongfully behind bars in the Garden State, based on 2010 prison population figures. The actual number, though, could be as high as 300.

Considering cases that date as far back as 1977, the National Registry of Exonerations lists 37 instances of New Jersey convictions set aside. Four men — three of whom spent more than two decades behind bars — were freed in 2018 thanks to a number of factors including new DNA evidence, official misconduct, and false accusations.

Under Pennacchio's legislation, which has not yet seen action in the state Assembly, the commission would also consider establishing a permanent panel with which convicted and incarcerated individuals can present a request for review of their case.

Michelle Feldman, state campaigns director for New York City-based Innocence Project, said a combination of the proposed law, along with a unit created recently by New Jersey's attorney general that will focus partly on wrongful conviction claims, could be very powerful in the quest to prevent or reverse mistakes that wrongly put people behind bars during the prime of their lives.

"Specifically to exonerees, it's just a loss of what could have been," Feldman said.

But a wrongful conviction, she said, also impacts the convict's family, as well as public safety.

"If the innocent person is in prison, the person who actually committed the crime is going to be out there harming others," she said.

The nonprofit legal organization is also trying to "fix the wrongful conviction compensation law in New Jersey," Feldman said. Currently it only applies to individuals who didn't plead guilty.

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