Despite everything we’ve learned from Law & Order, the American criminal justice system is far from flawless. In fact, many preconceived notions held by society at large about “how things work” in the American criminal justice system are just plain wrong. Like many other things, it often pays to look at the statistics in order to see past the veil of popular opinion masquerading as accepted common sense. Yes, we’re saying that facts about the criminal justice system matter more than opinions. To that point, here are six criminal justice facts you may be surprised to learn.
1. Wrongful Convictions Aren’t Rare
Research into the matter suggests an estimated 2.3% – 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. have been wrongfully convicted. If these numbers are to be believed, that means there are at least 46,000 innocent people behind bars. By some estimates, that’s as high as 1 in 25.
The rate could be lower than for capital murders, or it could be higher. 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.
2. Eyewitness Testimony Isn’t Necessarily Reliable
Despite its frequent use, the reliability of an eyewitness is never a sure thing. Sincere, honest people often make important mistakes when giving statements or testimony, and the staggering volume of wrongful convictions seen each year can attest to just how wide the margin of error actually is.
In fact, Innocence Project reports that approximately 72% of wrongful convictions (from their total 325 exonerations) are the result of eyewitness misidentification.
Still, not all is lost. The New Jersey Supreme Court, acknowledging a “troubling lack of reliability in eyewitness identifications,” issued sweeping new rules… making it easier for defendants to challenge such evidence in criminal cases. The court said that whenever a defendant presents evidence that a witness’s identification of a suspect was influenced, by the police, for instance, a judge must hold a hearing to consider a broad range of issues. These could include police behavior, but also factors like lighting, the time that had elapsed since the crime or whether the victim felt stress at the time of the identification.
3. Forensic Science Isn’t Necessarily Foolproof
Today, the testing and analysis of DNA is considered the most reliable of all of the forensic tools. Unlike many of the others gathered to meet the needs of law enforcement, it faced rigorous scientific experimentation and validation prior to its use in forensic science.
In fact, DNA has actually called into question the reliability of other forensic sciences, says Innocence Project co-founder Peter Neufeld.
“When we looked at all the cases of people who have been exonerated by DNA evidence, we found that in 60 percent of those cases, experts who testified for the prosecution produced either invalid evidence or the misapplication of science in their testimony.”
4. Innocent People Sometimes Confess
If you have never been tortured, or locked up and verbally threatened, you may find it hard to believe that anyone would confess to something he had not done. Intuition holds that the innocent do not make false confessions. What on earth could be the motive? To follow some fragile thread of imaginary hope that cooperation will bring freedom?
The reasons that people falsely confess are complex and varied, but what they tend to have in common is a belief that complying with the police by saying that they committed the crime in question will be more beneficial than continuing to maintain their innocence.
False confessions have figured in 24 percent of the approximately 289 convictions reversed by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project. Considering that DNA is available in just a fraction of all crimes, a much larger universe of erroneous convictions surely exists.
5. Ignorance Of The Law Is An Excuse (Sometimes)
Every year, thousands of new laws are passed and go into effect without much fanfare, yet they may affect your life in ways you never realize… until it’s too late. For instance, did you know that recording piracy is now punishable by seizure of the offender’s assets by law enforcement?
Ok, so you’re probably aware that piracy of any nature is against the law, but the old adage that ignorance is no excuse gets a bit tricky to enforce for crimes that are not inherently wrong. For these offenses, the principle that ignorance of the law is no excuse works only when a person knows what the statute requires or, at a minimum, could have discovered what the statute requires with a reasonable amount of effort.
Because our government has long-established procedures for making laws known, insufficient public notice is rarely an available defense. However, where defendants are charged with violating a brand new law that criminalizes behavior that is perfectly lawful in other places, those individuals may be able to assert their ignorance as a defense.
6. The Insanity Defense Won’t Necessarily Save You
Insanity and mental disturbances have been known to human society since ancient times and that practice of law has made many concessions on the matter. However, the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley, Jr. prompted Congress to restore the status quo from the late nineteenth century, at least in the federal courts. Many states followed the federal example.
According to an eight-state study, the insanity defense is used in less than 1% of all court cases and, when used, has only a 26% success rate. Of those cases that were successful, 90% of the defendants had been previously diagnosed with mental illness.
Defeating a criminal charge by way of self-proclaimed insanity (temporary or otherwise) may be a staple of American crime drama, but in the real world, you may as well plea bargain.