In 2014, we witnessed a record 137 exonerations in the United States. The statistics for 2015 have topped that record, however, with 149 exonerations reported by the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan Law School. Over fifty of these cases involved homicide convictions being overturned. Half of the wrongfully convicted exonerees were African Americans. While the news of more innocent people being set free is good, the numbers point to the disturbing state of our criminal justice system.
In truth, these record numbers hardly scratch the surface when it comes to the number of innocent people in our prisons. So many prisoners lack the necessary support system to combat their wrongful convictions. Many were forced to plead guilty to avoid extremely long sentences. Others were coerced into giving falsely confessing to police. Last year, sixty-five exonerations involved people who plead guilty to crimes they did not commit. Many were drug cases, but eight were homicide cases, all of which involved false confessions. Then there are the innocent prisoners denied parole year after year because they are supposed to show remorse for crimes they never committed.
I commend those officers of the court who sincerely want to serve justice, especially those who had a hand in bringing these exonerations about. But out of the record 149 exonerations last year, three quarters of the cases involved official misconduct. How many of these corrupt officers of the court have been disciplined for their role in using the judicial system to conduct legal kidnappings? I ask the same question about defense attorneys whose neglectfulness and ineffectiveness led to their client’s wrongful conviction. The average time these exonerees spent in prison was fourteen and a half years. There’s no good reason to ignore innocence for such a long period of time.
The appearance of Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs) is an important step forward. A CIU is a division of a prosecutor’s office that works to prevent, identify, and correct false convictions. There were twenty-four CIU’s in the U.S. in 2015, double the number just two years before. Since 2003, 151 people have been exonerated by CIUs. Some of these offices are pulling their weight more than others. Nearly half of all CIU exonerations have come out of the District Attorney’s office in Harris County, Texas. And nearly nine-tenths of the 151 exonerations were concentrated in just four counties. As the National Registry of Exonerations points out, half of all CIUs have not exonerated anybody, and several CIUs have no publicly available contact information.
The lack of independence from the prosecutor’s office is a concern that requires us to think twice before taking these new CIUs seriously. This is a major conflict of interest. Certainly, these units came about from public pressure concerning wrongful convictions. Innocent prisoners welcome such steps towards justice. But the question remains: are most CIUs wolves in sheep’s clothing? Innocent prisoners will take these CIUs more seriously when they are operating independently and can hold prosecutors and police fully accountable for misconduct. For too long, such misconduct, which falls disproportionately on poor people of color, has gone unacknowledged and unpunished.
People are not being wrongfully convicted simply because of mistakes and bad luck. Again, three-quarters of exonerations involved known official misconduct. Low-income and nonwhite defendants are particularly vulnerable. Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement and media coverage of police and prosecutorial abuses, the necessary pressure has been placed on officials to do what’s right. But reform is still moving at a snail’s pace. There are far too many wrongfully convicted prisoners still waiting for their names to be added to the exoneration list, and far too many families waiting for their loved ones to come home.