Partisan Politics Could Mean Jail Time for Innocent People - Pacific Standard

Partisan Politics Could Mean Jail Time for Innocent People

Research shows that Republican-leaning states are less likely to pass laws to protect against wrongful convictions.
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The number of wrongful conviction laws by state. (Graphic: Stephanie Kent & Jason Carmichael)

The number of wrongful conviction laws by state. (Graphic: Stephanie Kent & Jason Carmichael)

Wrongful convictions are a serious problem in the United States. There are approximately two million convicted felons behind bars. By some estimates, as many as 100,000 of them could be innocent.

The rise of DNA technology in the 1980s led to the exoneration of hundreds of wrongly imprisoned individuals, according to the Innocence Project, a public policy organization working to absolve wrongfully convicted people. In response, many states have adopted laws that would allow inmates to access and re-test their DNA evidence. But, as Cleveland State University sociologist Stephanie Kent noticed, far fewer states mandated that DNA evidence be saved after a conviction.

“It's kind of a nasty way for these inmates to find out that even though they have the ability to test [the DNA evidence], it’s not there when they go to do it,” says Kent, who started digging into other legislative safeguards against wrongful convictions and found that few were universally adopted.

Despite the fact that false confessions as a result of questionable police interrogation tactics tend to put the most innocent people behind bars, only 34 percent of states require that interrogations be recorded.

“A lot of people have said that both Republicans and Democrats are interested in preventing wrongful convictions,” Kent says, “but what we found when we looked at red states versus blue states, in short, is that the Republican states really are much less likely to have these laws in place.”

The Innocence Project recommends a number of legislative measures to reduce wrongful convictions: allowing inmates to carry out post-conviction testing; preservation of evidence; reforming eyewitness practices; recording interrogations to protect against false confessions; and providing financial compensation for innocent inmates. Together with McGill University's Jason Carmichael, Kent tallied how many of these laws each state adopted between 2000 and 2010. She cross-referenced that data with other factors: which party controlled the state legislature and governor’s office; which way the state has voted in presidential election; how many Innocence Project advocacy organizations are present; and crime statistics.

Despite the fact that faulty eyewitness testimony and false confessions as a result of questionable police interrogation tactics tend to put the most innocent people behind bars, only 34 percent of states require that interrogations be recorded, and just 16 percent reformed eyewitness practices, the study found.

“We did find that states where there are active organizations fighting wrongful convictions that we are seeing more of these laws being put in place,” says Kent, whose findings were published in the journal Social Science Research. “They’re accomplishing their ends, but they’re fighting an uphill battle.” The benefits of more Innocence Network-like organizations in a state were offset by the presence of Republican voters or a Republican-controlled legislature.

These measures wouldn't cost states very much money, Kent claims, nor would they make it easier for guilty individuals to game the system. So why aren't lawmakers passing such measures?

“It’s not that [Republican legislators] are afraid that guilty people are going to be running amok, but more so that the legislators and the governors in particular don’t want to seem as if they’re soft on crime,” Kent says. “I think it’s a political motivation more than it is that they’re worried about crime.”

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