It would be impossible to structure a society in which 100 percent of people arrested are guilty of the crime in question; most of us have a robust intuition for the fact that at least some innocent people are arrested – and some innocent people end up in jail. But how often, exactly, does this happen, and what can we do about it?
How Often Are Innocent People Arrested?
A conservative estimate is that 1 percent of the prison population, or 20,000 people, have been convicted falsely. Even more innocent people are arrested every year. It’s incredibly hard to produce an accurate estimate of how many innocent people are arrested regularly, because of how many variables are involved and how hard those variables are to measure.
For example, how do you prove that someone is innocent when there’s almost enough evidence to convict them? How many people have plead guilty to a crime despite being innocent?
What to Do as an Innocent Person Arrested
If you’re an innocent person, and you’ve been arrested for a crime you didn’t commit, the best thing to do is hire a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. Contrary to popular belief, hiring a lawyer doesn’t make you look guilty, nor is it something that only guilty people do.
Your lawyer is there to guide you through the legal process, make sure that you’re treated fairly under the law, educate you about the law, and make sure you don’t go to prison for a crime you didn’t commit. Hire the best criminal defense lawyer you can afford to maximize your chances of staying out of jail.
How Innocent People End Up in Jail
How could an innocent person end up in jail?
There are several possible reasons, including:
- Lazy or shoddy police work. Sometimes, innocent people get arrested because police officers were lazy or negligent. For example, if a police officer inaccurately describes a perpetrator, and that inaccurate description matches your physical profile, you could be arrested despite having no connection to the crime that was committed in the first place.
- Framing and malicious police work. More rarely, police officers may intentionally frame a person or act maliciously to arrest someone they don’t like. Most police institutions are not this nakedly corrupt, but it does happen from time to time.
- Prosecutorial misconduct. Innocent people may end up in jail as a result of prosecutorial misconduct. If the prosecuting attorney deliberately hides evidence, if they manipulate the case, or if they practice unethically, they could tip the scales in favor of a hefty jail sentence.
- False confessions. We like to think that someone would only confess to a crime if they were truly guilty of it; after all, why would you ever confess to something you didn’t do? But reality is far more complicated and human nature is far more nuanced than we often initially believe. The truth is, people can easily be bullied or manipulated into giving a confession for a crime they have no connection with. It might be because they got confused, or because they were misled, but it’s often because the innocent person feels like the evidence is too damning to ignore – and because investigators promise a lighter sentence in exchange for an immediate confession.
- Bad eyewitness testimony. The unfortunate truth is that human memory is extremely flawed, and eyewitness testimony is not very reliable. Yet millions of people have gone to jail almost exclusively on the basis of eyewitness identification.
- Snitching. Prisoners are sometimes given lighter sentences or other forms of leniency in exchange for snitching on other prisoners or people on the outside known to have committed crimes. To pursue this incentive, some prisoners are willing to snitch on innocent people.
- Lawyer incompetence. A bad criminal defense lawyer can hurt your case significantly. If they botch the evidence, make bad arguments, or mishandle your case entirely, you could end up in jail.
- Biased judges. Judges are meant to be focused, unbiased, and careful, but this isn’t always the case. If you have a biased judge, or if the judge is having a terrible day, you could end up being the victim of their incompetence.
- Flawed science. Science isn’t perfect, and many older scientific processes are now considered obsolete. Certain forms of forensic analysis, for example, are now considered to be extremely unreliable, despite their history of landing people in jail for a multitude of crimes.
Many of the items on this list can be eliminated or mitigated if you have the help of a competent criminal defense lawyer. Your lawyer will observe the police to make sure you’re treated fairly, they’ll uncover and present every piece of evidence they can find, and they’ll work tirelessly to make sure don’t go to prison for something you didn’t do.