With technology increasing to allow for the identification of specific DNA, there are a number of criminal cases that have been brought into question. DNA evidence has even exonerated, or set free, a number of people who were convicted of a crime in a court of law. As genetic testing continues to advance, the rate of those exonerated may advance as well.
There have been 317 DNA exoneration cases that have come post-conviction in the United States since DNA evidence became a standard.
The blunt reality of an exoneration means that an innocent person has sat behind bars for a long, long time for no good reason. Are some of those exonerated guilty of other crime? Potentially, but not for the one that got them locked up and that’s not right.
Three Fast Facts About DNA Exoneration
1. DNA has resulted in proving the innocence of 18 death row prisoners and another 16 prisoners that had been charged with capital crimes, but not sentenced to death.
2. The longest sentence served before DNA proved a prisoner’s innocence was 35 years.
3. The average length of sentences served by those exonerated by DNA evidence is 13.6 years.
Takeaway: Although only 311 exoneration cases have come to light, the estimates are that at least 4% of the current US prison population is innocent – there just isn’t enough evidence to be able to prove their innocence. The incidents of wrongful convictions are low, but even just 1 wrongfully convicted person is too many. As technology continues to increase, the justice system will hopefully become more refined and prevent more of these tragedies from occurring. Keep this in mind: these statistics don’t include those who were executed for a capital crime, but later found to be innocent.
Why is DNA Evidence so Important to Modern Justice?
1. Almost 50% of cases that experienced DNA exoneration were able to identify the actual perpetrator in the case.
2. 70% of people who are exonerated by DNA testing come from a minority demographic in the United States.
3. The average age of a person who is wrongfully convicted of a crime right now is 27.
4. DNA exoneration cases have been successful in 36 states and the District of Columbia as of this writing.
5. The total number of years served under wrongful convictions that is known as of this writing was over 4,100 years.
6. 30 people who were exonerated by DNA pleaded guilty to crimes that they didn’t commit.
7. The Innocence Project has been involved since 1989 to identify cases of wrongful convictions and have been involved in nearly 50% of the cases that have been dismissed.
Takeaway: The real problem in this country isn’t the standard of evidence being used, but is instead that people are judged to be guilty by those investigating their cases instead of being innocent until the evidence proves they’re guilty. From planting evidence to false documentation to coerced testimonies or confessions, there is a lot of pressure put on our law enforcement agencies to get results or lose funding. That places people in a dangerous position where individual morality is the primary deciding factor. Do you convict a potentially innocent person to save your job? Or lose your job and potentially your family by setting people free?
How Has DNA Evidence Changed Justice?
1. Since 1989, tens of thousands of people have been excluded as a primary suspect in an investigation because of DNA evidence.
2. 22% of cases from 2004-2010 revealed that they were closed because evidence had either been lost or destroyed.
3. Only 65% of people who have been exonerated by DNA evidence have been financially compensated for the wrongful conviction.
4. 25% of investigations have used DNA to exclude suspects.
5. African-Americans make up more than 50% of the exoneration cases that have happened to this date. Their demographic has been exonerated by DNA than all other race demographics combined.
6. Using medical statistic predictors, nearly 4% of the 2.4 million people in US prisons today are thought to be innocent, almost 100,000 prisoners in total who have been wrongly convicted.
7. The US prison population has quadrupled in the last 30 years.
Takeaway: That’s a staggering number of potentially innocent people who are behind bars right now, wrongfully convicted for a wide variety of factors. DNA has exonerated just a small fraction of these cases, which means there is still a lot of work to do. Of course no justice system is perfect, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that innocent people are being put away. More than 1 out of every 100 Americans is in prison right now and many of them have chosen to break the law and place themselves at the mercy of the courts. Yet if you were in that 4% of prisoners who were thought to be innocent, wouldn’t you like the chance to prove it?
What is Driving Conviction Rates Today?
1. The biggest reason for the increase in prison populations since 1998 is the mandatory longer sentences for drug offenses.
2. It costs $21,000 to support an inmate in a minimum security prison every year.
3. It costs $33,000 to support a maximum security inmate.
4. Budget costs for prisons are expected to increase by 30% by the end of the decade.
5. 51% of Federal convictions are for drug cases and just 1% are for homicide.
Takeaway: If we could have a war on drugs, then we could also have a war on wrongful convictions. Instead of being so desperate to put people into prison, we should be taking responsibility for ensuring that every case is thoroughly investigated, confessions aren’t coerced, and that the evidence matches up with the crime. Although this isn’t as much of a problem today as it was in the past with what we’d call primitive investigation tools, with estimates of 100k potentially innocent and in prison right now, something needs to be done.