Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 24, 2007
By: Kevin Drum


Having worked on the problems of crime control for almost thirty years, I tend to be much more sympathetic to the viewpoints and operational needs of law enforcement agencies than the average of the people I usually agree with politically. But on one point, I find myself utterly unable to understand what my friends in the law enforcement biz could possibly be thinking: why isn't it as obvious to them as it is to me that clearing innocent people is just as important a goal of law enforcement as nailing guilty ones?

....By my horseback guess, something like 35,000 of the 1.75 million people now in prison didn't do it. Even one would be too many, of course, but 35,000 innocents behind bars is a whole bunch of injustice. Yet the public seems entirely indifferent to the problem.

I'd say the answer to the first question is pretty obvious. First, no one like to admit mistakes, especially systemic mistakes, for which someone really ought to be fired. Second, admitting mistakes calls into question the reliability of today's convictions, and nobody in law enforcement is very keen to do this. And of course, since, as Mark points out, the public seems indifferent to this problem, law enforcement doesn't have much motivation to change its attitude.

But why is the public indifferent? I'll toss out two hypotheses for that too. First, the public might well think that a 2% error rate isn't all that bad. Second, I'll bet most of the public figures that 99% of that 2% is guilty of something, and therefore, in some cosmic karmic sense, justice is mostly being served after all.

Of course, the fact that these explanations seem obvious to me doesn't mean they're actually correct. Take your own guess in comments.

Kevin Drum 1:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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What portion of the 35K innocents are black? A big portion of this problem is racism, pure and simple.

Posted by: bebimbob on November 24, 2007 at 1:14 PM | PERMALINK

kevin: 35,000 innocents behind bars is a whole bunch of injustice. Yet the public seems entirely indifferent to the problem.

fear is more powerful than rational thought?

Posted by: mr. irony on November 24, 2007 at 1:18 PM | PERMALINK

any country that allows torture, and all the other ills and callousness brought to us by the compassionate conservatives, will hardly rise to defend a few thousand unjustly incarcerated.

Posted by: steve on November 24, 2007 at 1:21 PM | PERMALINK

Related, Alexander Volokh, (Eugene describes him as his older and smarter brother) has an fun essay, n Guilty Men exploring the history and changing values of the maxim, "It is better than n guilty men go free, than to convict one innocent man."

Posted by: jerry on November 24, 2007 at 1:23 PM | PERMALINK

bebimbob, it's not just racism, in part our system doesn't promise truth or justice, it promises due process. If you are innocent, but got due process, the judge, prosecutor, and even the defense attorney can go home and enjoy their views overlooking the same beach.

And it's also a statement of how society devalues the average man. As I think Adam Smith noted, we are more interested in the death down the street than the catastrophe that occurs around the world. This was also rephrased by Mel Brooks as "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die."

Posted by: jerry on November 24, 2007 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

Mr. Irony has it right--it's about fear. Most people view the job of the criminal justice system as "defending us." If the cops keep the "dangerous people" away from "our" streets, then we are happy. And if that involves punishing some people unjustly, it's too bad--but it's a price worth paying to have our fears alleviated. (Especially since "our kind of people" are rarely the ones paying it.)

Posted by: Karl Weber on November 24, 2007 at 1:37 PM | PERMALINK

What bebimbob said. There was plenty of outrage when it happened to those Duke lacrosse players, very little outrage when it happened to black guys in Tulia, outright support when it happens to some Middle Eastern guy.

Posted by: eeyn524 on November 24, 2007 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

What percentage of those innocents were poor people represented by either public defenders or lousy lawyers? In most jurisdictions not only does the public defenders office of far fewer resources than the prosecutors office, but often is saddled with lower quality lawyers as well.

Posted by: mfw13 on November 24, 2007 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK

How about a simpler explanation: that few people know the scope of the problem? I sure didn't, and I'm probably in the top 5-10% of the population in terms of awareness of these issues.

It's hard to get upset about an injustice if you don't know about it.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on November 24, 2007 at 2:17 PM | PERMALINK

t's hard to get upset about an injustice if you don't know about it.

And yet we get wall-to-wall coverage of Paris Hilton in jail.

They are poor, non-white and just too many for the press to care about, and if the press doesn't care, you are going to have a hard time finding out, and there will never be a feeding frenzy.

Look! There goes a runaway bride.

Posted by: Martin on November 24, 2007 at 2:36 PM | PERMALINK

Also, we have the Law & Order franchise spouting off that "do ya know haw many felonies a criminal commits before he's even caught?"

It's a problem that while rooted in right-wing ideology, also appears in Democratic circles too. Too many progressives are fond of the big ticket ideas, but when it comes to stuff that actually might affect them, like poverty and crime, they suddenly turn conservative. Translate: selfish.

Posted by: SteveAudio on November 24, 2007 at 2:38 PM | PERMALINK

The public will only care if it turns out they are among those 35,000 in jail and innocent of the crime. If it doesn't affect you, why worry?

Posted by: Mazurka on November 24, 2007 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

The simplest explanation is that most white middle class people aren't really bothered because it doesn't happen to people like them; if injustice only happens to the poor and minorities, it's too bad, but what the hell? Similarly, the only way we'll ever get prison reform is to start throwing large numbers of rich white guys into ordinary prison.

Posted by: john sherman on November 24, 2007 at 2:40 PM | PERMALINK

it's hard to get upset about an injustice if you don't know about it.

And that's true. I will note that Kevin and Yglesias have each covered these issues at least once this year.

And point out that us liberals have a sizeable contingent amongst us that cheerfully claims that false allegations of certain crimes never occur, or are so low, that the problem is trivial and can be ignored. See, because it's men that are falsely imprisoned and have their lives ruined.

Posted by: jerry on November 24, 2007 at 2:42 PM | PERMALINK

I recommend John Grisham's "An Innocent Man", which is his non-fiction work about a wrongly accused man in Oklahoma.

Posted by: Chris on November 24, 2007 at 2:46 PM | PERMALINK

It's hard to get upset about an injustice if you don't know about it.

But that's the very nature of this injustice: if we (i.e., the justice system, specifically the jury or judge) had known these people were innocent, they wouldn't have been sent to prison in the first place.

The actual numbers are a Rumsfeldian "known unknown." And they'll remain so; except in a small percentage of cases--e.g., those taken up by the Innocence Project--we have no way of identifying the innocents.

I'd be interested to know the basis for Mark's "horseback guess" about how many there are--not that it seems implausible, but is it convincing enough to make people so upset they'll decide to do something about it?

Posted by: Swift Loris on November 24, 2007 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

Also, from a law enforcement perspective an innocent person in jail means that the one that is actually guilty of the particular crime is perhaps still free. While the injustice angle is important, the bad police/prosecutorial work should also alarm citizens.

Posted by: josh on November 24, 2007 at 2:57 PM | PERMALINK

The police and public treat this issue as one of numbers. We have a guy in prison for a crime. He may be innocent but unless we can do a one-for-one swap with the actual guilty person it's better to hold onto him.

Posted by: CarlP on November 24, 2007 at 3:08 PM | PERMALINK

I work at a prison as a librarian, so I am constantly exposed to inmate legal work, since I have a copier they get to pay to use while they have a desire to tell me how much the system screwed (or is screwing) them. I'd say over 90% of inmates never even suggest they didn't do it, while only some of the remaining 10% profess innocence to some degree. Usually I hear about the cases of "I did it, but they introduced all this stuff during sentencing that shouldn't have been there" and "There's this new court ruling that I'll use to reduce my sentence" rather than "I didn't do it."

The "I didn't do it"s really bother me. I know some of them are lying, while others show me affidavits where the girls who said he molested them are now adults who say they lied and were pressured to do so. And then there are other cases where prosecutors did such things as listen in on inmate/lawyer phone calls and then suggest during the appeals that it didn't affect the trial. (Note: never talk, even to your lawyer, in the Maricopa County Jail.)

Prosecutors and district attorneys have careers devoted to winning cases. There is something about justice in the job description, but to do well in that profession you must win. The police are able to provide plenty of winnable cases (and most are, since the evidence is right there,) and when they aren't there's often some way to make it so. There's usually someone who knows something for a small price or can say they know something for a larger one. Of course, the DAs only do this because of those horrible people who work as defense attorneys, so the prosecutors can always sleep well at night.

I'm happy that most of the people in prison stay there when I go home at night, but sometimes I have to shake my head and wonder why we put up with some things. Our justice system is a great one, maybe the best in the world, but working in a prison has killed the pro-government idealist in me and is creating one of those civil-rights cranks some people call libertarians. (And no, I'm not voting for Ron Paul, so stuff it.)

Posted by: jon on November 24, 2007 at 3:08 PM | PERMALINK

One of the horrible attitudes of many conservatives, like the creepy skank Scalia-wag, is that it doesn't matter if innocent people get convicted, as long as the government did the procedure right. This proceduralism isn't really appropriate for conservatives in terms of rights theory, but it fits Right in with their mean streak and general hypocrisy and shameless irony about excercise of government power.

Posted by: !!! on November 24, 2007 at 3:13 PM | PERMALINK

"...why isn't it as obvious to them as it is to me that clearing innocent people is just as important a goal of law enforcement as nailing guilty ones?"

There are many prosecutors more interested in their won/loss percentage than in seeking truth and justice.

As for the public indifference, most of "the public" is largely indifferent to almost everything until they feel economic dislocation; or, in the present case, until they are falsely accused.

Posted by: Chris Brown on November 24, 2007 at 3:17 PM | PERMALINK

If, as I think is true, the so-called justice system exists primarily to protect the upper and middle classes from the scary, criminal and dangerous lower classes, then the result to be expected is a lot of the lower classes to be incarcerated for extended periods of time and for relatively minor offenses.

The distinction between the mandatory penalties for crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine leads credence to this hypothesis, as does the entire system of mandatory sentences. So does the normal practice in large cities of having the police themselves administer rough street justice at times.

So if the purpose of the "justice" system is repression of the lower classes, then that purpose is served equally well by incarcerating and killing both the guilty and the innocent.

Don't get me wrong, I live in a relatively tough neighborhood, very close to a really tough neighborhood. I approve of the way my local police do their job for the most part. But I think that we have to recognize that the fiction that we have a 'justice system' is really just that, when the wealthy can regularly buy their way out of punishment (O.J. Simpson and Texas' Cullen Davis as examples.)

As long as the police and courts exist to repress classes of people who are expected to be violent and to have no respect for property, then the idea of an agency trying to learn who was wrongly convicted is simply Utopian thinking like the ideal Communist society is.

It will remain so until and unless we Americans decide to stop treating large segments of our population as 'throwaway people' and segregating them (using social and financial means) into ghettos with few jobs, no health care, inadequate housing and rotten education for the children and adults unfortunate enough to be trapped there.

But, as I say, they is just Utopian thinking. This is America where every individual has to steal or inherit their own bootstraps before using them to pull themselves up and leaving the losers behind.

Posted by: Rick B on November 24, 2007 at 3:48 PM | PERMALINK

Mark Kleiman asks: why isn't it as obvious to them as it is to me that clearing innocent people is just as important a goal of law enforcement as nailing guilty ones?

IMHO our law enforcement system does give greater importance to clearing innocent people than to nailing guilty ones. It's terrible that 35,000 innocent people are in prison, but I have no doubt that a far greater number are on the streets who deserve to be in prison.

It's hard for courts to do justice accurately. It would be nice to improve court procedures so that fewer inncent people were convicted and fewer guilty ones acquitted. We should be on the lookout for such improvements. Meanwhile, I have the greatest respect for those who work to free wrongly-convicted prisoners.

Posted by: ex-liberal on November 24, 2007 at 4:18 PM | PERMALINK

Well, as far as why prosecutors and police seem indifferent to whether a person is innocent or not, the economist in me says, "Look at the incentives".

Every assistant prosecutor wants to be slated for prosecutor in a future election, and every prosecutor wants to become AG. How does one do that? By racking up convictions. And if exculpatory evidence shows up on the only suspect? Hide it.

And every cop wants promotions (to detective, lieutenant, captain). How does one do that? By clearing lots of cases. And if you sometimes have to frame some poor schmoe, well, he's probably guilty of something.

And for both actors, unless it's a high-profile (meaning, yes, white and rich) case like the Duke lacrosse players, there's rarely a downside to abusing one's power.

Posted by: Don K on November 24, 2007 at 5:05 PM | PERMALINK

Conservatives tend to want to make sure the system errs on the side of not letting any guilty people avoid prison. Liberals tend to want to make sure the system errs on the side of not letting innocent people go to prison. But liberals are also afraid of appearing "weak on crime" so conservatives tend to call the shots.

Conservatives have plenty of company in that view:

German chancellor Otto von Bismarck is said to have remarked that "it is better that ten innocent men suffer than one guilty man escape." 129 Feliks Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police, saw Bismarck's motto and raised him an execution: "Better to execute ten innocent men than to leave one guilty man alive." 130 Dzerzhinsky apparently did not elaborate on the rationale for this sort of treatment. Nor did Nikolai Yezhov, one of his like-minded successors, 131 except to quote the Russian proverb, "When you cut down the forest, woodchips fly." 132 For more information, the interested reader is referred to Major Nungo, a Colombian military prosecutor, who said, "For us military men, everybody is guilty until proved otherwise. . . . Better to condemn an innocent man than to acquit a guilty one, because among the innocent condemned there may be a guilty man." 133

And wikipedia says that Pol Pot expressed a similar sentiment.

Posted by: bob on November 24, 2007 at 5:20 PM | PERMALINK

On the good side: Among other cases, I defend in criminal cases in Alabama. Most are in rural counties adjoining Mississippi in Northwest Alabama. The DA there tells folks that he has never lost a case. When folks fall for it by pointing to jury verdicts that went against him, he tells them he still won because the state always wins when the innocent go free. He means it, too. There are folks out there who try in places you don't expect to find them.

Posted by: Dennis Harmon on November 24, 2007 at 5:34 PM | PERMALINK

Jon, somewhere up above, pretty much gets it right. I have long felt that arrests and prosecutions are driven by nothing more than statistics. The police and the DA's want to have what they perceive to be a winning record and they really, really don't care whether or not someone is guilty of a crime so long as they can get a convicion.

Another thing I have noticed is that a police officer rarely will rarely use any personal judgment in deciding whether or not a person should be arrested, but rather kicks that decision right on up the line to a DA or to a judge.

There is a huge push to expand the definition of criminal behavior and I am especially concerned about charging youth offenders as adults, but, once again, the statistics look good to the power structure!

Posted by: Tommy Harper on November 24, 2007 at 6:14 PM | PERMALINK

ex-liberal 4:18 PM

I have to assume that you don't live in Texas. Texas is a low-tax, low-benefit state in which administrative finality is more important than justice in the legal system.

The philosophy is give them a fair trial, throw them in prison, and ignore the appeals because they lead to (expensive) retrials and bad publicity. So the legislature sets deadlines that have to be met to even appeal a conviction. Then, when the deadlines are met, even things like the appointed Defense Attorney who slept through much of the trial was not considered sufficient justification to retry the case.

If you are poor, Black, Hispanic or Asian in Texas the courts exist primarily to intimidate you into passivity or convince you to leave the state. The fiction of justice in this state dies at the hands of elected "law-N-Order" District Attorneys and elected Judges who are generally Republican ex-prosecutors (Democratic candidates cannot be elected Judge because of Republican straight-ticket voters - Dallas county in 2006 was an aberration when Democrats voted straight ticket and won the county) and only fail to get reelected if they let a defendant go free in high-profile high-publicity case.

Justice? It's damned hard to find in this state unless you count convicting the obviously guilty rapidly, cheaply and sentencing them for long terms with little review as justice. Better the spend $30,000 a year locking poor people up for long terms than spending that same money on health care, housing or education.

Then once someone is convicted, make appeals expensive, difficult and then make success in an appeal unlikely, as often for failing to meet administrative challenges as for failure to provide evidence of an error.

But of course the lawyers and politicians like to use the word "justice" as often as possible so that everyone can be fooled into thinking that is what the so-called "justice" system is doing.

Posted by: Rick B on November 24, 2007 at 6:23 PM | PERMALINK

"35,000 innocents behind bars is a whole bunch of injustice. Yet the public seems entirely indifferent to the problem.

Stating the problem this way is not useful. What we have is an estimate that there are 35,000 people behind bars who are *not guilty of the crime for which they are convicted*. This is very different from saying that they are innocent.

There is a long and bizarre history in America of assuming that it is acceptable to stretch the truth or, heck, even lie, if you're on the side of right. This isn't acceptable when homeless advocates do it, and it's not acceptable when GWB does it. All it does is piss in the well for future do-gooders. After you've heard enough nonsense about how 10% of the families in America are homeless, you just assume everything you hear on the subject is BS. Likewise, what's going to happen next time AIDS advocates
request more money from Congress and are told "Screw you; why should we trust what you say, given that the epidemic isn't as bad as you made it out to be."

OK, with that out the way. Not to justify the indifference of the public, but to explain it:
How many of those 35,000 have had some sort of run-in with the law before? This is a factual question for which an answer does exist (though it may not be discoverable thanks to redacted court records and such).
I suspect most Americans believe that they've done plenty (other drug deals, other burglaries, other rapes, other killings) before they finally slipped up; and that even if the evidence is actually tainted this time, that's not the same thing as them being innocent.

Now I don't know the extent to which is a valid viewpoint. I do know from my own youth (in the South African school system rather than the US), that the kids who got expelled or received serious punishments at school did deserve it, based on the common knowledge of the student body. Sure the parents might complain about how this particular incident didn't deserve expulsion, but a kid only gets to the level of expulsion after a long string of crimes. There might be an occasional mistake along the way; but the general pattern is pretty damn clear.

So one obvious issue is the extent to which the criminal system is (or is not) like the school system in that one sees the same pattern of repeat offenders over and over again. The school system is, of course, the main experience most people have with this sort of punishing authority, and it's only natural that they use it as a template for their understanding of the criminal justice system.

Posted by: Maynard Handley on November 24, 2007 at 6:42 PM | PERMALINK

Maynard - fine, when you are charged with first-degree murder, then all those times you were speeding and didn't get a ticket will be balanced out?
This is reasoning?

Posted by: Doug on November 24, 2007 at 7:02 PM | PERMALINK

When someone guilty escapes conviction and goes on to kill someone, that too is injustice. Or at any rate a bad thing. Do we want to minimize the false convictions, the dangerous nonconvictions, or the sum of the two? And why would we think that a legal system that has accreted like a coral reef does any of those things?

If you look back at the satanic pre-school convictions, it sure looks as if DAs who are willing to prosecute and convict the innocent in return for politically useful publicity aren't rare.

Posted by: gcochran on November 24, 2007 at 7:30 PM | PERMALINK

"But why is the public indifferent?"

Watch an episode of "Cops."

Posted by: Joey Giraud on November 24, 2007 at 7:52 PM | PERMALINK

It's a good thing racism doesn't play a role. I know that because white folks tell me so.

Posted by: sherifffruitfly on November 24, 2007 at 8:32 PM | PERMALINK

Let's not just talk about that 2% being guilty of something. How about the fact that just about EVERYONE is guilty of something, and not just something "wrong" or "immoral," but something criminal. I've stolen things in my life. I've gone into other peoples' houses. I've damaged valuable property. I've lied to get access to particular government documents. I've harassed people. I've taken multiple sorts of illegal drugs.

It all sounds pretty heinous, doesn't it? But, in fact, this was all pretty tiny, tiny, small-fry stuff. Yes, it was wrong. Yes, it was illegal. But should I have to go to jail because I did two lines of cocaine at a party circa 1985? Should I go to jail because I ate a housemate's frozen dinner? Should I go to jail because I wanted to learn the cause of death of a friend I cared about more than anyone else in the world? Should I go to jail because I ask a neighbor to turn down her music and then she sics the cops on ME?

I guess I've been lucky enough to never be arrested. I guess I've been lucky enough to be white, so on those few occasions where I've ever had to talk to a police officer I've been given the benefit of a doubt. Someone so respectful and well-spoken?--oh, this is obviously all a big misunderstanding.

The goal of justice and policing is NOT to catch and punish all crime because that is IMPOSSIBLE and we would ALL land in jail. But most Americans seem to think that IS the goal, which is why so many Americans are currently WAREHOUSED in prisons or have criminal records.

In this country we live in today, I would probably have been frogmarched into prison at age six for breaking open a package of Ho-Ho's at the supermarket and nibbling on them. On other occasions, my parents would have been arrested for leaving me in a parked car in the parking lot while they went shopping. Child endangerment! Child left in the parking lot while parents shop! News at 11!

It's just disgusting, this country of ours.

Posted by: Anon on November 24, 2007 at 9:10 PM | PERMALINK

"Maynard - fine, when you are charged with first-degree murder, then all those times you were speeding and didn't get a ticket will be balanced out?
This is reasoning?"

Jesus, Doug, are you capable of reading?
I put forward some thoughts on the subject in the hope that they would be refuted or verified. I did not even say what I believe on the matter; rather I tried to explain why this is not considered a pressing issue by most Americans.
But, go right ahead. That's one hell of a way to win people to your cause, by telling them they're evil and will one day get what's coming to them.

Posted by: Maynard Handley on November 24, 2007 at 10:03 PM | PERMALINK

Judging from the facts given below, I'd say that 35,000 innocent people in the prison system is a GROSS underestimation. If not, then I'd say that the social and economic system in the US is a complete failure. Well, we know that already.

"Criminal justice experts from the U.S. Justice Department report that the United States has the largest prison population and highest incarceration rate in the world due to factors such as tough sentencing laws, record drug offender arrests and high crime rates.
A report released by the justice department on Nov. 30 reported 1 in every 32 American adults -- or a record 7 million people -- were incarcerated, on probation or on parole at the end of 2005, with 2.2 million of them in prison or jail. The International Center for Prison Studies at King's College, London reported that this number was the highest of any country, with China ranking second with 1.5 million prisoners, and Russia sitting in third with 870,000. The United States also has the highest incarceration rate at 737 per 100,000 people, compared to nearest country Russia's 611 per 100,000 and St. Kitts and Nevis' 547.

US Imprisons More People Than China, Russia Or Any Other Nation (2006)


"About half the nation’s 2.2 million prisoners are black. With only 36 million of us, that’s an astounding 3% of African Americans, counting all ages and both sexes, languishing behind bars, with a roughly equal number on probation, parole, house arrest or other court supervision. Almost one in three 18-year-old black males across the board is likely to catch a felony conviction, and in some communities nearly half the black male workforce under 40 have criminal records. A felony conviction in America is a stunningly accurate predictor of a life of insecure employment at poverty-level wages and no health care, of fragile family ties, of low educational attainment and limited or no civic participation, and a strong likelihood of re-imprisonment.

AND a surprise to me:

"Wisconsin leads the nation in the percentage of its black inhabitants under lock and key. Just over four percent of black Wisconsin, including the very old and the very young of both sexes, are behind bars. Most of the state’s African Americans reside in the Milwaukee area, and most of its black prisoners are drawn from just a handful of poor and economically deprived black communities where jobs, intact families and educational opportunities are the most scarce, and paroled back into those same neighborhoods. So Wisconsin, and in particular the Milwaukee area justly merit the invidious distinction of the Worst Place in the Nation to be Black.

The Black Commentator: Ten Worst Places To Be

Posted by: nepeta on November 25, 2007 at 12:01 AM | PERMALINK

anon - excellent comment.

Posted by: nepeta on November 25, 2007 at 12:05 AM | PERMALINK

People are busy, so they have limited time to focus on political issues, including this one. So the question is how people pick the few issues they will pay some attention to. Conservatives probably spend too much time worrying about illegal immigration and liberals probably spend too much time worrying about affirmative action (as one example for each side). Both of these are legitimate issues, but I'd rather have people worry about the costs of the drug war and the problems of the criminal justice system than either one of these other two issues.

Posted by: Bill on November 25, 2007 at 1:13 AM | PERMALINK

Sentence first, verdict afterward!

Posted by: The Queen of Hearts on November 25, 2007 at 7:31 AM | PERMALINK

When I talk to people who have never worked in law enforcement (I'm a former prosecutor) about the police, I ask them two questions: "Do people at your workplace make mistakes?" and "Do they ever admit it?" The light goes on, every single time. Clearly, it's never occurred to them to look at it that way.

Posted by: Kyron Huigens on November 25, 2007 at 7:41 AM | PERMALINK

Since when has affirmative action become synonymous with liberal!

Posted by: Don Quixote on November 25, 2007 at 8:04 AM | PERMALINK

35,000 anonymous people behind bars is a statistic. The same way people don't get all riled up when we hear about millions of people starving in africa. This is just basic social psychology.

Posted by: Liberal Chris on November 25, 2007 at 9:50 AM | PERMALINK

The error rate is vastly larger than 2%. In many jurisdictions it is effectively 100%, less whomever is both 1) caught red-handed and 2) already on the enemies list.

The underlying attitude is that the deterrent effect of punishment does NOT depend upon getting the right guy.

There is also a notion that unless police and prosecutors can preserve a veneer of infallibility, the whole system will more or less instantaneously collapse.

The whole "CSI" strand of popular entertainment caters to this and is of course totally unrealistic--nothing remotely like it happens anywhere in the real world. Most of the people in prison were put there by county sheriffs and county prosecutors who have no investigative resources to speak of, no motivation
to achieve accurate results, and every incentive to preserve the appearance of infallibility.

Posted by: Frank Wilhoit on November 25, 2007 at 10:00 AM | PERMALINK

Most people are a bit naive on the subject of law enforcement. Good guys v. bad guys sort of mentality.

Posted by: Luther on November 25, 2007 at 2:06 PM | PERMALINK

A late entry, but my first inclination is that it's related to plea bargaining... like you I think the average person thinks the specific crime a convict is tagged with and the one(s) he's guilty of have a tenuous relationship. I really think we should try to get away from promoting this practice.

Posted by: mr insensitive on November 25, 2007 at 2:53 PM | PERMALINK

I would hazard that virtually all innocent people who are convicted are poor, and most are minority.

Middle-class and rich people can hire people to get evidence to prove their innocence, poor people can't. In fact, most middle-class and rich people manage to stay out of jail even when they're obviously guilty. A good lawyer can always find something. But poor people can't afford good lawyers.

In fact police don't arrest, and prosecutors don't indict, middle-class and rich people unless there is overwhelming evidence of guilt, because they know that crummy cases against such people won't stand up in court.

But they know that they can nail a poor person on just about any charge.

And most of the public think poor people, especially minorities, are guilty of *something*, as you point out. So they don't really care about one more poor person rotting in jail. In fact, some may even think it's a good idea to keep "those people" constantly terrified of the law, even when they've done nothing.

Posted by: Nancy Irving on November 25, 2007 at 9:40 PM | PERMALINK



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