Sunday, March 27, 2011

Everyone Claims They are Innocent

This is a popular myth of conservatives.   The basic belief is that all prisoners claim innocence.   It sounds so obvious - if you are in prison then of course you want to get out, so of course you will lie and claim innocence.

To bad it is false.  Almost entirely so. 

  1. Most people confess after they are arrested.   You know that scene on TV or the movies, where the bad guy is in the interrogation room and cops tricks them into confessing?   It's real.   A large number of criminals confess when caught. That's why they have interrogation rooms. 
  2. When they don't confess, they take a plea deal.  Lawyers are not stupid.  They know how good a case is and they also know how expensive a trial can be.  According to the American Bar Association, over 90% of those charged with a crime end up pleading guilty.   More so for felonies.  Less than 10% of convicts have always maintained a claim innocence.
  3. It is not that hard to understand why.   In 2009, New York State, of the 106,995 felony arrests, over 68% were convicted,  about 0.4% were acquitted.  Of the rest, about 23% were dismissed (possibly sent to a treatment program),  about 4% the DA decided to withdraw charges, and the rest were 'other' or 'combined into other court cases' .   I repeat, out of every 200 people arrested for a felony, 134 get convicted, about 54 have charges dropped/dismissed,  you might get ONE man found innocent by a judge or jury.
  4. But it is not quite as bad as it sounds - sometimes the jury finds them guilty, but of a lesser charge.  Only about a third of those charged with a felony ended up being convicted of a felony.  About 42% had charges downgraded to misdemeanors and the rest ended up with 'non-criminal offenses'.  This does include plea bargains as well as the trial, so I don't know how often this the jury does something like finding the guy who beat up a drug dealer guilty of illegal disposal of trash.
  5. Back to that 90% pleading guilty (closer to 94% for felonies).  DNA analysis has found that about 5% (aka 1/20) of people convicted of crimes where DNA was found but not analyzed are actually innocent.
  6. Ignoring the cases where people admit guilt after being convicted and also the all too common cases where innocent people plead guilty of crimes they did not commit (mainly to get a deal offered by the DA), we have some interesting numbers.  Assuming that the DNA statistics hold true, then if 1/10 people plead not guilty and 1/20 actually are innocent, that means that of the people that claim innocence, about half of them actually are telling the truth. 
Most of my data came from here

What it comes down to is that most criminals admit their guilt and of the few that claim innocence, about half of them are probably telling the truth.

I should also add a couple of things.  First, I agree with Justice Scalia (and this is pretty much the only time I ever have), when he says we should be proud of the 5% innocence number.  I think that having only 5% of convicts be actually innocent is a fairly good number.  If we forced that number down to say 1%, it would probably involve letting the smart guilty people go free, which sounds like a bad idea to me.  Also, the 'not guilty' findings are very low, which means the judges and prosecutors don't waste tax payers time and money unless there really is evidence.

But that 5% figure also means that when criminals claim innocence even after being convicted that we should actually give them the benefit of the doubt.  I don't mean let them go, but we should not interfere with appeals if they have steadfastly maintained their innocence.  The DNA evidence indicates that about half of the appeals are NOT 'frivolous'.  Our best guess is that at least half of all those people desperately and repeatedly appealing our legal system are actually innocent.  Particularly for people serving time for their first ever conviction.  I could see refusing to pay for their appeals, but if a charity/pro-bono lawyer decides to make the appeal, the state should fund the DA in their attempt to deny it.

So stop railing about frivolous appeals, man up and admit that innocent people go to jail.  We have about 2.3 million American convicts, if only 4.3% of them (less than the 5% from DNA), are innocent, that is over 100,000 innocent people in jail.

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