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November 10, 2014

"Why Are There Up to 120,000 Innocent People in US Prisons?"

The provocative question in the title of this post is the provocative headline of this lengthy article from VICE News.  Here are excerpts: 

Guilty pleas and false confessions by the innocent are counterintuitive phenomena, says Rebecca Brown, director of state policy at the non-profit Innocence Project.  But of the 321 DNA exonerations that have occurred in the United States, 30 have involved people who originally pled guilty to crimes they didn't commit.  It's hard to accept that people who are innocent would knowingly incriminate themselves, but it happens frequently.

"Our cases are almost exclusively rapes and murders — very, very serious crimes — and even then, innocent people are pleading guilty," Brown says.  "Now spread that out across the entire system to include lower-level offenses, the vast majority of which are pled out, and the implications are clear."

According to the Innocence Project's estimates, between 2.3 percent and 5 percent of all US prisoners are innocent.  The American prison population numbers about 2.4 million. Using those numbers, as many as 120,000 innocent people could currently be in prison...

"The system isn't geared to discover innocence or guilt — it's geared to get people through the system as quickly and efficiently as possible," says John Pollok, a defense lawyer who has defended clients ranging from the mayor of Waterbury, Connecticut to members of the Gambino crime family.  "What it comes down to for a defense lawyer is really to try and minimize harm."

Overwhelmingly, minimizing harm means taking a deal instead of taking your chances at trial. And just as false confessions lead to false convictions, coercive plea bargains are also responsible for sending thousands of innocent people to prison. "Everybody swallows the lie because they want to believe that the system works," Pollok says. "The short of it is, each component of the system, from lawyers to judges to the way we charge people, is broken."

As federal judge Jed Rakoff wrote recently in the New York Review of Books, "The Supreme Court's suggestion that a plea bargain is a fair and voluntary contractual arrangement between two relatively equal parties is a total myth: It is much more like a 'contract of adhesion' in which one party can effectively force its will on the other party."

Rakoff tells me there are too many variables involved to pin down precisely how many innocent people are in prison, but he says criminologists peg the rate at which innocent people confess to crimes during plea bargains between 2 percent and 8 percent.  A spread that wide rightfully raises suspicions, and so Rakoff chooses to instead use an extremely conservative estimate of 1 percent. Even then, that puts up to 20,000 people behind bars for crimes they did not commit due to pressure to accept pleas.  "We know for a fact that there are innocent people taking pleas and going to prison," Rakoff says. "That's not conjecture."

No one can be forced to accept a plea bargain; the right to a trial is guaranteed by the US Constitution.  However, a pernicious phenomenon called the "trial penalty" dissuades many defendants from exercising it.  The federal conviction rate is an astonishing 97 percent, and studies have shown that defendants who refuse plea bargains are put behind bars for roughly nine times as long as those who take deals.  (Twelve of the inmates exonerated by the Innocence Project were threatened with the death penalty before deciding to plead guilty.)  As one former US Attorney told Human Rights Watch (HRW) last year, "If you reject the plea, we'll throw everything at you. We won't think about what is a 'just' sentence."

When Sandra Avery was caught with 50 grams of crack cocaine, prosecutors offered her a 10-year sentence if she agreed to plead guilty.  Avery decided to take her chances at trial, and was promptly convicted, after which prosecutors "threw everything" at her by invoking Avery's three previous convictions for possession.  The total value of the drugs Avery had been caught with in the previous three cases amounted to less than $100, but because Avery had three priors, she was sentenced to life in prison. There is no parole in the federal system. Avery will die behind bars.

Darlene Eckles, a nursing assistant with a clean record, agreed to let her brother stay with her after he got out of prison. She protested when he began dealing crack from her home, and finally kicked him out six months later. When the brother was later arrested on federal drug trafficking charges, Eckles got picked up too. Like Avery, Eckles refused to plead guilty, and went to trial. Although the jury convicted her on lesser charges that did not carry a mandatory minimum, prosecutors argued Eckles was every bit as responsible as her brother. The judge sentenced her to 19 years and seven months in prison. Her brother, who pled guilty, got 11 years and eight months.

Weldon Angelos sold $350 worth of marijuana to a confidential informant, who claimed that the 22-year-old Angelos was armed with a gun during two of the transactions. After Angelos was arrested, police found 3 pounds of pot and three guns during a search of his apartment. There was no evidence the guns had ever been fired or used to threaten someone else. Prosecutors offered Angelos 10 years for the weed, and five years for the guns. Angelos declined, opting for a trial. Prosecutors responded by filing a superseding indictment that stacked five new charges on top of the existing ones. Angelos was convicted and sentenced to 55 years in federal prison. He will be nearly 80 years old when he is released.

November 10, 2014 at 04:30 PM | Permalink

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People here know exactly why.

1) The lawyer is made a dumbass by the education, no matter the native intelligence. The entire profession is stupid, stupider than kids in special ed. They would do a better job of controlling crime, with their far greater common sense and crude sense of fairness and safety. Nincompoops in utter failure in every self stated goal of every law subject. Imagine a car mechanic with this rate of false negatives. No licensing sanctions, no lawsuits. Prison as a threat to public safety.

2) These idiots and hypocrites went and immunized themselves so there is no incentive to to improve. And now, the idiots have handed over a full justification for lethal violence against them even in formal logic. When their idiocy causes 9/11, the econimic crisis, and soon the loss of Iraq after $trillion due to lawyer stupidity, it is a patriotic duty to straighten them out.

3) Each proof of innocence should be investigated as an air crash might be. What were the average of 12 factors that came together in a space and time to cause this catastrophic failure? Instead of firing people or sending prosecutors to jail, change the function of the system to prevent future occurrences.

4) Add rent seeking, where this stupid profession generates $trillion in payments from productive taxpayers, and all anomalies are explained.

I know this blog has no substantive interest in victims, but a bigger problem is the false negative rate, 90%. That is the fraction of serious crimes that go unanswered by the lawyer dumbass. A quarter are violent. (Victims right to be cry babies in open court is undignified, lawless being an ex parte communication without cross examination, violates the Sixth Amendment, no matter what the dumbass Supreme Court has rules, and adds nothing of substance to public safety, Job One and Job Last of government. If such victims could be cross examined, they would be asked about the benefits of the crimes of the defendant, and those be counted as mitigating factors. For example, someone kills a big bully, and now the family is no longer physically and sexually abused, a benefit, that warrants a money award not prison.)

As a personal aside, I have looked for alternatives to the stupid lawyer profession to manage crime. It has been unanimous, no matter which alternative profession I approached, absolutely, no. So we are stuck with the hopeless lawyer dumbass profession. Its rent seeking is an insurmountable obstacle to improve it.

Only technology remains to save crime victims.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 10, 2014 10:22:14 PM

In my forthcoming book (January, 2015?), "__ Proposals to STOP Wrongful Convictions Before the End of this Decade," I use a conservative estimate of 2 percent wrongly convicted people in our prisons. I use a 1.5 million estimate for those in prison, not including jails. The result is 30,000 innocent people in prison.
That's an appalling number for many reasons. And those 30,000 have relatives and friends who are dramatically affected.
Just as John Kennedy launched the U.S. campaign to put a human on the moon "before the end of this decade," we should end wrongful convictions before the end of 2019.
Morrison Bonpasse
non-practicing, retired attorney
now Private Investigator and author.
Newcastle, Maine

Posted by: Morrison Bonpasse | Nov 11, 2014 9:29:46 AM

I wish I could find that federal report I saw years ago. It put that number at 10%

as for those mentioned in this article. if I was one of them. I would certainly be in prison but it would be for doing my best during my kangaroo court doing my best to KILL the two-faced traitor of a DA or Judge.

Posted by: rodsmith | Nov 11, 2014 12:55:02 PM

Each of us has a calculus... X number of innocent convicted and condemned to prison for Y number of accused who were guilty. Is that number 1/10,000, 1/25; or something in between? A rational system accepts wrongful convictions in its pursuit of the wrongdoer, but mitigates this inevitability with significantly reduced sentences. The U.S.--because it uses: 1) a jury system; 2) an adversarial system; 3) a common law case based system as routine protocol; 4) all of which are supported by a poorly educated public and an inflammatory legislature responding to interest group soundbites--does not have a rational system. As Max Weber called it, we have had and continue to have a kadi-justice system. Until we have a real rational justice system, with unprofessional fact finders, complex or downright weird rules of evidence and procedure designed around the problems inherent with dealing with unprofessional fact finders, a polarizing system which expects the dramatically unequal parties with radically divergent interests to duke it out in the courts arena in order to reach the truth, and until we then stop with the draconian sentences and consequences for the losers of this process, along with educating the public past their daily dose of "cop and investigator hero" shows as to the real daily issues we will not have a rational system.

Posted by: AFranz | Nov 13, 2014 12:43:21 PM

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