Convicting the Innocent


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.