QuickTakes: Wrongful Convictions

With the skyrocketing popularity of podcasts like “serial,” wrongful convictions have been in the news more often. The Opinion section weighs in on issues surrounding the topic, nationwide. 

Independent State Agencies Are Crucial For Monitoring Government Justice Systems

According to the University of Michigan National Registry of Exonerations, there have been over 1,549 exonerations in the United States since 1989. Unfortunately, this is not surprising considering the fact that the U.S. justice system relies heavily on the exhibition of criminal evidence by trained lawyers, arguing to protect only their own client, or their government. Furthermore, the Sixth Amendment gives individuals accused of a crime the “right to a quick and speedy trial.” While protecting individuals accused of a crime from remaining in court-system limbo, critical evidence is sometimes overlooked or neglected. Another sadly predictable statistic is that most of the individuals who were wrongly convicted were African-American, illustrating that biases still exist despite a supposedly fair system,  

The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission is a government agency that examines cases in which claims have not been heard in a post-conviction hearing or trial and, where valid, potentially conclusive evidence exists. Since the Commission is neutral, it does not defend or condemn an individual but rather ensures that cases have been thoroughly and justly analyzed. Thus, unlike prosecutors or lawyers representing defendants, it does not have an incentive to convince a judge or jury, allowing the evidence to speak for itself. Because the Commission is a state agency, it has the authority to subpoena witness testimony, whereas other organizations with similar goals do not.

According to an investigation performed by the Better Government Association and the Center on Wrongful Convictions, based at the Northwestern University School of Law, exonerations based on wrongful convictions cost the state of Illinois over $214 million during the 1989–2010 period. However, because evidence analysis is costly and Congress failed to pass the Justice for Reauthorization Act, which funded the agency and those like it, programs like the one in North Carolina may eventually be cut. 

In an imperfect justice system, it is imperative that third-party agencies like the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission continue to exist and receive funding because, not only do they save lives, but they save states millions of dollars in post-conviction trial proceedings.

—  TINA BUTOIU News Editor

State, National Focus Should Be on Decreasing Prison Funding, Increasing Graduation Rates

Prison is often associated with malevolent criminals. Unfortunately, this fantasy of evil thugs fails to accurately represent America’s prison population. According to The Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization that specializes in exonerations, 2.3 to 5 percent of prisoners may be incarcerated due to wrongful convictions. If 1 percent of inmates are innocent, that represents a minimum of 20,000 people. Also, don’t forget the sheer amount of nonviolent lawbreakers in prison for minor drug crimes. In a country with the highest incarceration rates in the world, it’s not surprising that California invests more in prison than education. Sometimes we pay to keep innocent people behind bars. To address these concerns, the University of California Student Association’s student-run campaign Invest in Graduation Not Incarceration, Transform Education is fighting for change. 

This challenges the school-to-prison pipeline. For the last couple of decades, spending for prisons has skyrocketed, while education has faced a plethora of cuts. Scott Graves, the research director of the California Budget Project, claims that California is currently planning to invest over $62,000 per prison inmate, as opposed to the mere $9,200 spent per K-12 student. And California is only part of the problem. Despite representing only 5 percent of the world’s population, the American Civil Liberties Union states that the U.S. has managed to account for 25 percent of the world’s overall prison population. This shows that the country drastically needs more programs like IGNITE to be available in every state, to prevent the continued expansion of a prison industrial complex.

Society as a whole would benefit if California closed funds for prisons and opened doors for students. A report by the Alliance for Excellent Education found diminished levels of education may increase crime rates. In contrast, expanding the high school male graduation rate by a mere 5 percent could save the nation $18.5 billion from yearly crime expenses. Funding for programs advocating for rehabilitation and preventative alternatives to incarceration are important to implement throughout the nation. The IGNITE campaign aims to wake up California, as taxpayers realize that they’re getting what they paid for.

— CASSIA POLLOCK Associate Opinion Editor