Convicting the Innocent and Imprisoning Debtors

The most tragic condition in the U.S. criminal justice system is the conviction of the innocent. When I attended a conference on the wrongfully convicted in the mid-1990s at the Chicago branch of Northwestern Law School, over a third of the 75 or so freed nationwide from Death Row or life sentences were in attendance. Exonerations have been steadily climbing since that conference in Chicago. Law professor Brandon Garrett puts the number of DNA exonerations alone at 280 as of the writing of his book — published in 2011 (21) — however, given the extreme difficulty of freeing those falsely convicted and extrapolating from research on eyewitness misidentifications and DNA exonerations, Professor Garrett conservatively estimated that those wrongfully imprisoned in the United States ranges from a few thousand to 20,000. (22)

According to data compiled by the Innocence Project, which looked at 281 postconviction exonerations secured through DNA in the Uniited States, eyewitness misidentification “was a factor in 75 percent… making it the leading cause of those wrongful convictions.” (23)

Professor Garrett’s examination of misidentifications found that in at least a third of the cases, the eyewitness was shown a “stacked lineup,” where the actual suspect was highlighted. (24) In the case of Timothy Cole, convicted of rape in Texas, all but one of the photos shown to an eyewitness were mug shots of men looking away from the camera and holding their book-in cards. Cornell law professor Michael Dorf says that “Human beings are not very good at identifying people they only see once for a relatively short period of time” and “studies reveal error rates of as high as 50 percent… .”

A number of reforms have been suggested to reduce the tragic occurrences of eyewitness misidentifications: 1) implement the practice of “blind administration,” whereby the officer conducting a lineup is not aware of who the suspect is (thus not revealing identity through gestures, vocal inflections and body language); 2) “non-suggestive” lineups made up of people who generally resemble a witness’es description, so that the suspect does not stand out; 3) allowing witrnesses to sign a statement indicating their level of confidence in their choice; 4) presenting members of a lineup sequentially ( to mitigate the pressure to choose someone when presented with a bunch of faces at once).

The tragedy of wrongful convictions is amplified by the virtual elimination of parole in many legal jurisdictions; the enactment of truth in sentencing and “three strikes and you’re out” legislation; and the prevalence of life sentences without the possibility of parole. In the United States, on average, prison sentences are twice as long as those in England, three times as long as those in Canada and five to ten times as long as those in France. The 2007 U.S. imprisonment rate of 506 per 100,000 population was exceeded only by Russia’s 513, while Germany’s comparable rate was 74 and France’s, 72. (25)

Debtors’ Prisons

Debtors’ prisons are back, joining the long list of social ills once thought to be remedied but being rolled back by our modern society: closing of mental institutions and letting the mentally ill forage for survival in the streets; poll taxes and literacy tests being duplicated by a plethora of voter suppression laws, led mostly by Republicans; the virtual demise of rehabiliation as a goal in America’s prisons; and attempts to privatize successful social programs, such as Social Security and Medicare.

The debtors’ prison has been illegal in the United States since 1833. Nonetheless, more than a third of states now allow borrowers to be jailed, even when debtors’ prisons have been explicitly banned by state constitutions. The cost of jailing sometimes exceeds the debt owed.


(21) Schwartzapbel.

(22) Ibid.

(23) Ibid.

(24) Ibid.

(25) O’Donnell.


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