Clearing the innocent

Tens of thousands of innocent people rot in prison. Why doesn’t that count as a law enforcement problem?

Having worked on the problems of crime control for almost thirty years, I tend to be much more sympathetic to the viewpoints and operational needs of law enforcement agencies than the average of the people I usually agree with politically. But on one point, I find myself utterly unable to understand what my friends in the law enforcement biz could possibly be thinking: why isn’t it as obvious to them as it is to me that clearing innocent people is just as important a goal of law enforcement as nailing guilty ones?

The latest instance involves the FBI’s decision not to bother to tell the people who had been convicted based on faulty metallurgical analysis of ammunition that the “science” behind their convictions had been thoroughly discredited.

We ought to have, at the Federal level and in each state, an agency with subpoena powers and the capacity to compel secret testimony (i.e., the powers a prosecutor wields through a grand jury) whose sole charge is identifying innocent people in prison and demonstrating their innocence, either to the courts or to whoever has the authority to pardon. And yet as far as I no such an authority exists in no jurisdiction; any politician who proposed one would be pilloried as “soft on crime.”

By my horseback guess, something like 35,000 of the 1.75 million people now in prison didn’t do it. Even one would be too many, of course, but 35,000 innocents behind bars is a whole bunch of injustice. Yet the public seems entirely indifferent to the problem.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: