America Has a Horrific Wrongful Conviction Problem
A record number of American convicts were exonerated in 2015. Most of them were minorities, many mentally handicapped. A new report presents data that suggests there are hundreds (potentially thousands) of other innocent people behind bars in the United States.
A new report has shed a frightening light on one of America's most veiled dilemmas — the false conviction. It's the type of injustice that poses a major threat to the nation's most vulnerable, as well as a perceived threat to a criminal justice system not keen on second-guessing itself. That reticence will need to change, and soon, as new data on false imprisonments suggest a greater national problem than most realize. Efforts to remedy the issue will be possible only after we as a society take a long look in the mirror past the face we want to see, and at the face we have.
Think on this: How ought someone respond to the following headline?
An initial response might dwell on the silver linings: We're getting better. This is progress. It's relieving to see successful efforts to rectify past mistakes.
Another perspective would cut immediately to the human tragedy. Innocent people whose lives have been irreparably damaged. The failure of justice. The host of others still stewing in cells, clutching to faint bits of hope that exoneration will retrieve them as well.
The following is excerpted from the above-linked article from NBC News:
"In all, 149 people spent an average of 15 years in prison before being cleared last year, according to a new report (PDF) out Wednesday from the National Registry of Exonerations, a project at the University of Michigan Law School.
The convictions ranged from lower-level offenses, such as 47 drug crimes, to major felonies, including 54 murder convictions that were overturned. Five of the convicts were awaiting execution, and were saved last year when courts ruled they didn't belong in the prison in the first place."
Other important details add a racial element to the story. More than two-thirds of the exonerated were minorities. Almost 20 percent had falsely confessed to crimes under duress. A considerable chunk of those people were mentally handicapped and/or under 18 at the time of their conviction. These figures suggest that minorities, especially young African-Americans, are at an elevated risk of being falsely convicted.
And then there's perhaps the most jarring statistic in the report: "28 percent of all exonerations last year came from a single office, Harris County, Texas, because it has rigorously reviewed past convictions." In a year that set the exoneration record, over one-quarter of those released from false imprisonment were from the Houston area.
We're faced again with the duality of perception. One response to that statement: Good on Harris County for attempting to right the wrong. Let them be a model.
Another: Horror. The only reason we even know about this is because Harris County efficaciously checked its work — and only years later. Imagine how many other wrongfully imprisoned people there are across the country, convicted by less judicious DA offices who are unwilling to put themselves at risk of criticism, and therefore won't go back to see if they really got it right.
We should be glad to see innocent people freed from the clutches of injustice, and we ought to hold hope that this record-breaking year is followed up by another in 2016, and another the year after.
At the same time, each unshackled leg and newly freed individual will only shine a brighter light on the catastrophic failures of our justice system. Free society is built upon a cracked foundation. The tactics used to get convictions are not always employed with righteousness in mind. Society must become more aware that justice is not always served, and be prepared to grapple with that truth's implications.
Because only through understanding can be develop the courage to improve.
Source: NBC News
Photo credit: Rommel Canlas
Robert Montenegro is a writer and dramaturg who regularly contributes to Big Think and Crooked Scoreboard. He lives in Washington DC and is a graduate of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
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