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Good Question: How many innocent people go to prison?

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UPDATE: Chris Tapp was exonerated of rape and murder charges in July 2019. Read the story here.

The recent release of Chris Tapp after he spent 20 years in prison for the rape and murder of Angie Dodge in Idaho Falls begs the question: Is this case unique?

Assuming Tapp is innocent (and no, I’m not taking sides here), how many others are serving time for crimes the they didn’t commit?

No system is perfect, including the criminal justice system, and people have long recognized that innocent people do, in fact, go to prison. As Learned Hand (yes, that was his name), a prominent judge of the early 20th century, said: “Our (criminal) procedure has been always haunted by the ghost of an innocent man convicted.”

So how many innocents are behind bars? The exact number is unknown, because, a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study observes, “There is no systematic method to determine the accuracy of a criminal conviction; if there were, these errors would not occur in the first place.”

However, some indicators are out there.

The PNAS study, which focuses on exoneration of people sentenced to death, shows that “if death-sentenced defendants remained under sentence of death indefinitely, at least 4.1 percent would be exonerated.” (Tapp was not on death row.)

The study looked at death sentences because everyone, “from the first officer on the scene of a potentially capital crime to the chief justice of the United States,” takes these cases far more seriously than any others.

“The vast majority of criminal convictions are not candidates for exoneration because no one makes any effort to reconsider the guilt of the defendants,” according to the study. “Approximately 95 percent of felony convictions in the United States are based on negotiated pleas of guilty (plea bargains) that are entered in routine proceedings at which no evidence in presented. Few are ever subject to any review whatsoever. Most convicted defendants are never represented by an attorney after conviction, and the appeals that do take place are usually perfunctory and unrelated to guilt or innocence.”

But not every case gets forgotten. The National Registry of Exonerations states 2016 was a record year for exonerations in the United States (breaking the 2015 record) — with at least 166 exonerations, ranging from drug possession to sexual assault to homicide. The registry has recorded nearly 2,000 exonerations since 1989.

Why the growing number? Here are a few reasons.

More people in prison

Compare these two graphs.

2 State and federal prisoners 1980 2015

More people in prison correlates with more exonerations.

DNA science

Your first guess might be forensic science getting better. People getting exonerated because of new DNA evidence does make the news on a regular basis. But the same science that is freeing people can also wrongfully convict them if it is misunderstood. You don’t hear about that as often, but it happens.

To compound the problem, many labs that perform DNA testing are slammed with a backlog of cases.

This video from Greg Hampikian of the Idaho Innocence Project shows how DNA evidence is not the absolute truth you may think it is.

This video from Greg Hampikian of the Idaho Innocence Project shows how DNA evidence is not the absolute truth you may think it is.

Racial bias

America has a race problem. Surprise.

According to a study that came out this month, “African Americans are only 13 percent of the American population, but they are statistically more likely to be wrongfully convicted of crimes and later exonerated. They constitute 47 percent of the 1,900 exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations (as of October 2016). They are also the vast majority of more than 1,800 additional innocent defendants who were framed and convicted of crimes in 15 large-scale police scandals and later cleared in ‘group exonerations.'”

The study also found that murder exonerations with black defendants had a 70 percent rate of official misconduct during the prosecution, which includes concealing evidence, witness tampering and perjury by a state official. Usually those at fault are police, according to the study.

Overworked prosecutors

“Some innocent defendants plead guilty to crimes they have not committed simply to get out of jail.”

From a 2011 report titled “The State (Never) Rests: How Excessive Prosecutor Caseloads Harm Criminal Defendants,”Excessive caseloads lead to long backlogs in court settings, including trials, and bottom-line plea bargain offers. … Excessive prosecutorial caseloads delay trials for months or even years, leading some defendants who would have exercised their trial rights to simply plead guilty and accept a sentence of time served. Some innocent defendants plead guilty to crimes they have not committed simply to get out of jail.”

In addition, this study argues, an overburdened prosecutor can easily lose sight of the bigger picture. For example, a defendant charged with robbery may have been present at the scene, but the state doesn’t take the time to delve deeper and notice this person was a “small-time player” who tagged along with bigger criminals.

A caution about the numbers

get out of jail gameboard shutterstock
Stock photo

When looking at all these statistics, however, it’s important to note that inmates whose convictions are in doubt aren’t always exonerated, even if they leave prison early.

Take Tapp himself — his rape conviction was vacated, but his controversial murder conviction still stands. And elsewhere in Idaho, Sarah Pearce was convicted of brutally beating a motorist in Canyon County, but her sentence of 15 years to life was amended to time served (about 12 years) and five years probation. Pearce later went back to prison for a probation violation after admitting to using meth.

And what if the guilty walk? How many of those who were exonerated or got a pass out of prison actually committed the crimes?

Sometimes that’s a risk you have to take for the innocent to go free. As 18th century English jurist William Blackstone said, “It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

Do you have a Good Question about anything? Send it to Robert! Email him at, or visit him on Twitter @notthegeneral or Facebook.