I remember in my sophomore year class titled “Argument and Advocacy,” we were all told to choose a cause for which to advocate. I took this assignment rather seriously because, as a future law student, I figured I should find a cause that I am passionate about. As I scrolled through Google, I came across the headline: The Innocence Project. I clicked on the website and I started watching videos of wrongly convicted people and a knot in my stomach grew. In this moment I knew that this was a cause I was passionate about and wanted to bring awareness to.
Currently in the United States prison system there are between 2.3 and 5 percent of wrongly convicted people in prison; which is equivalent to about 20,000 people nation-wide. This number is alarming and way too high to go unnoticed. There are many things wrong with our prison system, but to me, this is the most pressing issue. As a society, we need to stop normalizing sending people to prison. If and when someone is sentenced to a prison sentence the government needs to be 100 percent sure they committed the crime.
In the past, the rates of wrongly imprisoned people were much higher than what they are now. Thanks to new technology being developed, however, these numbers are decreasing. One of the most popular ways to check if the accused individual actually committed the crime is through DNA analysis. DNA analysis is the process of examining physical evidence, such as blood or hair, and determining whether it can be matched to DNA taken from other individuals, such as suspects, witnesses or victims. In 2020, a man named Kerry Robinson was finally exonerated of his “crimes” after serving 17 years in prison. Robinson’s conviction stemmed from a case in 1993 where three young men held a woman at gunpoint and proceeded to rape her. The police had the woman look through pictures in a high school yearbook in order to identify the young men who attacked her. The woman identified one attacker who would later be convicted, but then that attacker claimed Robinson was also involved. As we know now, this was a lie, and Robinson thinks the attacker said this because he reported the attacker in a previous investigation.
Exonerating people is a wonderful thing which I do not want to take away from, but these people should not have been imprisoned in the first place. There was a mistake made on the part of the government, and innocent people had to suffer for it. There is no amount of money in the world that can make up for taking away 17 years of a person’s life. In those 17 years, inmates are subject to abuse, poor living conditions and many even develop mental health issues such as depression. Not to mention, when many inmates get out of prison society still labels them as an ‘ex-convict,’ so it is extremely difficult for them to live a normal life. In many cases, only entry-level jobs are available to them because they lack the education necessary to obtain a job with more demands.
Most states in the U.S. have statute for exonerees, but not all. The exceptions are Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming. On average, prisoners who have been exonerated through DNA analysis spend more than 14 years behind bars. The first step in fixing our corrupt prison system is having these states all input statutes. These statutes are meant to ensure that people have an easier time re-entering society. Usually, the amount of money given is nowhere near enough to sustain a comfortable life long term. But in the short term, the money can be used to acquire housing and sustain the individual until they find a job. Some other shortcomings in the current system are that some states prohibit compensation to those deemed to have “contributed” to their wrongful convictions. This is the wrong attitude to take, because it is ignoring the fact that they were wronged and suffered greatly because of it. This denies justice to those who were coerced into confessing or pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit. This is most similar to the Robinson case because he was not directly involved in the case, but still somehow ended up being wrongly charged. In addition, denying these falsely accused individuals compensation goes directly against civil rights, which are guaranteed to every U.S. citizen.
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