When it comes to crime in the modern United States, there are a lot of common misconceptions. For instance, even though many people fear burglars breaking into their homes in the dead of night, the most common time for a burglary to occur is between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Armed with this knowledge, you can better protect your home and your loved ones by locking your doors and windows during the day or by remembering to turn on your alarm system regardless of the hour.
Unfortunately, some common misconceptions about crime are much more sinister in nature. And, depending on the color of your skin, you may not be able to save yourself from becoming a victim.
According to a newly published report, the overwhelming majority of those who were formally exonerated of crimes they didn’t commit were African-American. The report, entitled “Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States,” notes that the bulk of the 1,800 innocent defendants framed by law enforcement since 1989 were also African-American. While this may not come as a surprise to those in the black community, this report provides hard data to support a notion many already knew to be true.
The report examines the wrongful convictions and subsequent exonerations of defendants in murder, sexual assault, and drug cases since 1989.
Half of all defendants exonerated for murder were African-American, despite the fact that black people make up only 13% of the entire U.S. population. On average, these wrongfully sentenced individuals spent more than 14 years in prison. And, in all likelihood, there are many more innocent individuals who still remain behind bars today. These wrongful murder convictions were also 22% more likely to involve misconduct of police than cases wherein the defendant was white.
In sexual assault cases, the disparity is even more obvious. African-Americans who were imprisoned for these crimes are 3.5 times more likely to be innocent than white prisoners sentenced for the same type of crime. These individuals also spend significantly more time in prison before being exonerated; on average, black individuals wrongfully convicted on sexual assault charges remained in prison for 4.5 years longer.
The report concludes that a major cause for these disproportionately high rates of wrongful convictions was mistaken identity. While white victims would like to believe they have identified the perpetrator correctly, it seems likely that many of these wrongful imprisonments stem from the inability of traumatized victims to distinguish key features other than skin tone.
Of course, the War on Drugs has been shown to have a significant impact on the black community as well, and it’s often cited as legally enforced racism. African-Americans and white people use drugs at about the same rate, but black people are five times as likely to be imprisoned for drug possession. In addition, those black individuals who are actually innocent of such crimes are 12 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted than white individuals.
The report also notes that black Americans are subjected to more frequent searches by police.
Samuel Gross, author of the report and law professor at the University of Michigan, notes, “Of the many costs that the War on Drugs inflicts on the black community, the practice of deliberately charging innocent defendants with fabricated crimes may be the most shameful.”
While the data looks grim, there is a small indication that attitudes may be changing. In 2016, a record number of 166 exonerations took place, which averages out to around three per week. That number is the highest since exonerations were first analyzed in 1989. Even better, 2016 was the third year in a row that saw a record number of criminal exonerations.
However, there’s still much to be done. Those who are exonerated don’t receive much in the way of assistance during their transition. It can also be painful to accept that their government took away such a huge portion of their life for no reason other than the color of their skin.