Record number of exonerations should raise concerns about our justice system

By Scott Alessi| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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Though it isn't uncommon for people convicted of crimes to swear that they are innocent, new evidence continues to prove that quite a few of them are in fact telling the truth. Through the use of DNA evidence--and increasingly due to the efforts of prosecutors and law enforcement--a growing number of people who were wrongfully convicted are being released from prison.

A new report released by the National Registry of Exonerations found a total of 87 exonerations of innocent persons in 2013, the highest number in a single year since statistics started being compiled in 1989. The report finds that in 27 of the cases, the convicted person wasn't only innocent, but no actual crime had been committed. The trend appears to be on the rise, and several major cities including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles now have "conviction integrity units" in their district attorneys' offices to review old cases.

Considering that the United States has by far the world's largest incarcerated population--more than 2.2 million people, according to the latest Bureau of Justice Statistics report--it may seem that 87 cases are not very significant. Of course we can't expect our justice system to be perfect, and it is inevitable that, based on sheer volume of cases, someone who stands trial will be convicted of a crime they did not commit.

But here are some numbers that put things in a different perspective: The new report finds that the state with the most exonerations last year was Texas, with 13. The Death Penalty Information Center also reports that Texas was the state with the most executions in 2013, with 16.

The possibility that a state may take the life of an innocent person has long been one of the most compelling arguments against the death penalty. But the idea that a person who has committed no crime would be sent to prison and lose years, even decades, of their life should be just as troubling a thought, especially for Catholics. There may be no way to guarantee that justice is always served without error, but our commitment to upholding the dignity of the human person compels us to ensure that we do all we can to protect the innocent.

As the number of exonerations increases and new efforts are underway to correct past mistakes, it appears we are getting a little closer.