In an opinion piece published in Tuesday’s edition of the
, former Innocence Project Attorney Colin Starger writes that our country continues to see an annual rise in the number of people who are exonerated because the justice system, overall, is overwhelmed.
In his op-ed, Starger highlights that 2014 was a record year for exonerations in the United States. According to the
National Registry of Exonerations
, 125 people were exonerated of crimes they did not commit. That number is up from 91 the two previous years. As an explanation for the continuous rise in the number of exonerations, Starger writes:
… 2014’s record-breaking number of reversals tells the tale of a system overwhelmed. The sheer volume of uncovered wrongful convictions puts the lie to the widespread belief that our criminal justice system has solved its most basic problems.
[R]isk factors that we now know lead to wrongful conviction — eyewitness misidentification, junk science, false confession, ineffective assistance of counsel and police misconduct — are present in thousands upon thousands of cases that pass through our system every year.
This suggests the deeper reason we continue to see reversed convictions: sheer volume. The United States imprisons more people per capita than any other nation, with 2 million incarcerated at present. That crushing volume makes mistakes inevitable. Accuracy is impossible when police, prosecutors, public defenders and judges labor under impossible caseloads. Under this circumstance, we can expect wrongful convictions to continue for years to come, even if only a small fraction of those we incarcerate are innocent.
It’s high time to draw the inescapable conclusion: Mass incarceration is a failed policy. When year after year we see that we cannot get the most basic component of justice correct — punishing the right people — we need to reexamine our fundamental assumptions and consider radical solutions.
Indeed, one of the most significant findings of the latest National Registry of Exonerations report is that 54 percent of the reversed convictions in 2014 (67 out of 125) were obtained at the initiative of or with the cooperation of law enforcement. This is a truly significant change.
When even prosecutors recognize the profound and persistent problem of wrongful convictions, meaningful criminal justice reform is indeed possible. With state budgets shrinking and across-the-board cuts looming, it is no longer unfathomable to envision — and to propose — a concerted policy of decarceration. We do not need to lock up so many behind bars. We are supposed to be the land of the free. For the sake of justice, let us consider another way.