Across the nation, there are thousands of innocent individuals spending time behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit. Unfortunately, the majority of these people are black.
That’s the context you need to understand a recent finding that African Americans are the most likely group to be formally exonerated for crimes they didn’t commit. Not only that, but they are also the most likely to be unlawfully framed by law enforcement.
These findings come from a report that examines the ties between race and wrongful convictions across the nation. The report, “Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States,” was published earlier this month as a supplemental study to the National Registry of Exonerations. The report looked at individuals wrongly convicted of sexual assault, murder, and drug crimes since 1989.
When sexual assault crimes were considered, black individuals were found to be 3.5 times more likely to be innocent than a white person who was arrested for the same crime. Plus, these black inmates spent around 4.5 years more time on average in prison than white offenders. Exoneration officers report that this is largely due to the fact that some white sexual assault victims wrongly identify their assailants.
The report goes on to show that while 13% of the U.S. population is African American, a full half of all those cleared for murder were black. This is a rate of seven times more than whites, with the wrongly convicted spending an average of 14 more years in prison.
But wait, there’s more bad news: researchers also found that forced confessions by innocent African Americans were 22% more likely to include police misconduct and leading of the witness. Not only this, but these individuals are likely to spend their entire lives in jail. The report’s authors conclude that there are likely thousands of innocent black men and women in prison that have yet to be cleared for their supposed crimes.
“More often than not, they will die in prison,” the report explains.
Massive disparities in sentencing for drug crimes only make this false imprisonment problem worse. Even though a new study from Princeton University shows that more white middle-aged Americans are becoming addicted to prescription painkillers than ever before, African Americans are more likely to end up with prison time.
In 2015, 20.5 million Americans over the age of 12 had a substance abuse disorder. Of this number, 2 million abused prescription pain relievers, and 591,000 used heroin. Despite some misguided stereotypes, white and black Americans use drugs in roughly equal numbers, yet innocent black people are 12 times more likely than their white counterparts to be wrongfully convicted of drug offenses.
According to the exonerations report, this number is so large because police officers tend to crack down harder on drug usage in black communities. Black Americans are routinely stopped, frisked, arrested, and convicted at higher rates than any other demographic in the nation.
However, things might finally be changing, as 2016 was a record year for exonerations — there were 166, which totals about three per week. This is the highest number since the study started in 1989, and more than double the amount of cases cleared in 2011. Of the 2,000 reported exonerations since 1989, fully 1,800 involved African Americans.
But if the study is correct, that means there are thousands more innocent black men and women suffering in prison right now.