The Appalling Disparities in Wrongful Convictions

The Appalling Disparities in Wrongful Convictions June 6, 2019

My friend Radley Balko has a new column out about a study from the National Registry of Exonerations — those wrongfully convicted of crimes and later proven to be innocent — and the numbers are appalling across the board. Wrongful convictions we know of, which surely just scratch the surface, have cost people more than 20,000 years of their lives in prison (not to mention those wrongfully executed). And of course, it shows clear racial disparities.

Among the highlights:

  • The 2,265 exonerees in the NRE database served a combined 20,080 years behind bars. That’s an enormous amount of wasted human potential.
  • More than half the exonerees in the database have never been compensated.
  • In states that have statutes that dictate the sum to be paid to the wrongly convicted, exonerees on average receive $69,000 per year in prison. Those who sue do better: They average more than $300,000 per year. But lawsuits are also much less predictable.
  • As is often the case with the criminal-justice system, race is a factor. Black people are more likely to be wrongly convicted — they make up 12 percent of the population but 46 percent of exonerees, and collectively represent 56 percent of the life years lost to prison. Black exonerees also spend more time in prison before they’re cleared and released (10.7 years vs. 7.4 years for white people) and receive less compensation when they get out (on average, $42,000 less per year of incarceration).

The racist nature of our criminal justice system goes far beyond those numbers, of course, as I have documented exhaustively over the last 15 years. And Balko is absolutely right about this:

It’s also worth pointing out that while the $2.2 billion paid out was certainly important to the people who received it, that figure isn’t likely to deter future wrongful convictions. The money almost always comes from public treasuries or at least from municipal insurers, not from the public officials responsible. For real deterrence, we’d need consistent accountability for police and prosecutors whose misconduct sends innocent people to prison. Police are protected by qualified immunity. Prosecutors are shielded by absolute immunity, even in cases where they have been shown to have committed egregious misconduct, such as manufacturing evidence.

Police and prosecutors can make sincere mistakes and believe someone to be guilty when they’re not. But in any case where there is misconduct of any kind — hiding exculpatory evidence, faking evidence, abusive interrogation practices, etc. — not only should the cop or prosecutor be held liable, they should have to serve the full sentence of the person they framed. Want to defer misconduct? That would certainly do it.

"If only he had become an assassin like his daddy."

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