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A different way to look at the cost of mass incarceration

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Mass incarceration is typically evaluated through its financial costseffect on crime, and toll on prisoners held for decades for low-level drug offenses. But what if it were also evaluated by how many innocent people it swallows?

Samuel Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, provided some startling numbers in an op-ed for the Washington Post:

How many people are convicted of crimes they did not commit? Last year, a study I co-authored on the issue was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It shows that 4.1 percent of defendants who are sentenced to death in the United States are later shown to be innocent: 1 in 25.

Death sentences are uniquely well-documented. We don’t know nearly enough about other kinds of criminal cases to estimate the rate of wrongful convictions for those. The rate could be lower than for capital murders, or it could be higher. Of course, in a country with millions of criminal convictions a year and more than 2 million people behind bars, even 1 percent amounts to tens of thousands of tragic errors.

A haunting hypothetical is if the rate of innocent people who are sentenced to death — one in 25 — applied to everyone within the criminal justice system. That would mean that there were nearly 276,000 innocent people in the entire corrections population, which includes jail, prison, parole, and probation, or more than 88,800 innocent people in the incarcerated population alone in 2013, based on Bureau of Justice Statistics data.

To put those numbers in perspective, there would be enough innocent people in the entire corrections population to fill half the state of Wyoming. And if the rate of one in 25 held, that number of innocent people would only go up as the corrections population grew.

There's reason to believe that the number is an underestimate, as well. As Gross noted, more people tend to plead guilty in misdemeanor courts, where not everyone can afford a lawyer. It's very likely many of these defendants aren't actually guilty: Unable to make bail, most people facing these low-level charges may decide that probation or a short stint in jail is better than taking the odds of going to trial — even if they're innocent. "If they refused, they'd wait in jail for months, if not a year or more, before they got to trial, and risk additional years in prison if they were convicted," Gross wrote. "That's a high price to pay for a chance to prove one's innocence."

The result is a criminal justice system that isn't just bloated and expensive, but one that incarcerates and oversees probably tens of thousands of innocent people, too.