THE LATEST THINKING
The opinions of THE LATEST’s guest contributors are their own.
There are too many innocent people in prison. This is one simple way to reduce that number and benefit everybody.
Have you ever wondered how many innocent people there are in prison? We hear several times a year about the people who are convicted of murder or rape and freed years later when DNA testing proves they were innocent.
What about innocent people who are convicted, but there is no DNA evidence in the case? There aren’t many of them, as a percentage of the prison population in this country, but they do exist. A study done last year by Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan, and which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found 4.1 percent of those sentenced to be executed, were later proven to be innocent. That is far too many to be facing the death penalty.
There are also those who were convicted of crimes other than murder. With over 2 million people in our federal and state prisons, even a conservative estimate of 1% means over twenty thousand innocent people in prison. Again, far too many.
Some of the reasons for this are things that will never change, such as a victim misidentifying the perpetrator of the crime. That is an understandable human failing. Our memories are imperfect to begin with, and in a high stress situation, very few people will be thinking of memorizing every detail of the person threatening their life, property or safety. It is part of being human.
However, there are things that can, and should, be done that would, at a minimum, allow a defendant to prove his or her innocence sooner than is now possible. The one thing that would have the biggest impact and would be the easiest to implement would be speeding up the appeals process.
At present, a direct appeal takes a minimum of five years. A post-conviction appeal can take another three to five years or more. That is just the first two steps. The difficulties of proving innocence means most of the time, the case goes on to the federal courts.
That means eight to ten years, at a minimum. So unless a sentence is longer than that, there is no point in going through the process.
This is important for many reasons, but one reason is the most important by far: If an innocent person is in prison, the real perpetrator is still free. Still committing crimes and creating more victims. The case is closed and the police are no longer looking for the guilty party.
If the innocent can prove he is wrongfully convicted in no more than two or three years, the case is reopened and the police have a better chance of catching the real perpetrator. If the entire sentence is served before the end of the appeals process, the real perpetrator is never caught. Even if he is arrested for another crime, he will never be punished for the crimes he committed that someone else paid for.
Speed up the process and all of society benefits.
Advocates for changes in New Orleans' criminal justice system held a news conference Tuesday discuss their request that the...