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.

Think on this: How ought someone respond to the following headline? Jailed but Innocent: Record Number of People Exonerated in 2015

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.

Indeed, 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: "Twenty-eight 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

**

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.

Twitter: @Monteneggroll. Website: robertmontenegro.com.

Befriend your ideological opposite. It’s fun.

Step inside the unlikely friendship of a former ACLU president and an ultra-conservative Supreme Court Justice.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Former president of the ACLU Nadine Strossen and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia were unlikely friends. They debated each other at events all over the world, and because of that developed a deep and rewarding friendship – despite their immense differences.
  • Scalia, a famous conservative, was invited to circles that were not his "home territory", such as the ACLU, to debate his views. Here, Strossen expresses her gratitude and respect for his commitment to the exchange of ideas.
  • "It's really sad that people seem to think that if you disagree with somebody on some issues you can't be mutually respectful, you can't enjoy each other's company, you can't learn from each other and grow in yourself," says Strossen.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less

Physicists find new state of matter that can supercharge technology

Scientists make an important discovery for the future of computing.

Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • Researchers find a new state of matter called "topological superconductivity".
  • The state can lead to important advancements in quantum computing.
  • Utilizing special particles that emerge during this state can lead to error-free data storage and blazing calculation speed.
Keep reading Show less

Physicist advances a radical theory of gravity

Erik Verlinde has been compared to Einstein for completely rethinking the nature of gravity.

Photo by Willeke Duijvekam
Surprising Science
  • The Dutch physicist Erik Verlinde's hypothesis describes gravity as an "emergent" force not fundamental.
  • The scientist thinks his ideas describe the universe better than existing models, without resorting to "dark matter".
  • While some question his previous papers, Verlinde is reworking his ideas as a full-fledged theory.
Keep reading Show less

How to heal trauma with meaning: A case study in emotional evolution

As tempting as it may be to run away from emotionally-difficult situations, it's important we confront them head-on.

Videos
  • Impossible-sounding things are possible in hospitals — however, there are times when we hit dead ends. In these moments, it's important to not run away, but to confront what's happening head-on.
  • For a lot of us, one of the ways to give meaning to terrible moments is to see what you can learn from them.
  • Sometimes certain information can "flood" us in ways that aren't helpful, and it's important to figure out what types of data you are able to take in — process — at certain times.
Keep reading Show less