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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: -2°C
The Innocence Project

Working to exonerate innocent people in American prisons

There are 2.2 million people in America’s prisons – and the Innocence Project works to free those who shouldn’t be there.

Prisoner_population_rate_world_map Wikimedia Wikimedia

AMERICA HAS MORE prisoners than anywhere else in the world.

Currently there are 2.2 million prisoners in America. That is 1.6 million more than in Russia, 2.1 million more than the UK and 600,000 more than China.

Nearly two-thirds of prisoners who are released from American prisons will re-offend within three years. However, there are some who shouldn’t be there.

For inmates who are in prison in the wrong, there is a non-profit organisation that fights their corner: The Innocence Project.

The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University to assist prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing.

To date, they’ve exonerated 300 people, including 18 who had served time on death row.

The average length of time a person who is exonerated has served is 13 years.

innocenceproject / YouTube

Paul Cates of The Innocence Project says that the project is designed to encourage reform in the US criminal justice system.

“Our mission is to use DNA evidence to exonerate people and reform the system to prevent injustice.

“We try to look at the criminal justice system through a scientific lense. We know through the exonerations that there is a flaw in the system.”

Cates says that misidentification is a problem in the system that leads to innocent men and women being in prisons.

“By far the biggest cause of wrongful conviction is misidentification. Scientists have determined more effective and accurate identification methods, but we’re trying to have a standard set on scientific evidence.

“As such, there is no set standard for states to use in terms of what can be used as scientific evidence and what can’t.”

That push for a scientific standard one of the key goals for the Innocence Project.

They say:

For each cause of wrongful conviction, there are straightforward, proven remedies that make the system more accurate: police can change how they administer lineups to reduce errors; forensic science standards and oversight can increase the reliability of evidence; recording interrogations can reduce false confession.

In a review of Innocence Project cases that went to DNA testing and were then closed over a five-year period, DNA testing proved innocence in about 43% of cases, confirmed the prosecution theory in about 42% of cases, and was inconclusive or not probative in about 15% of cases.

In more than 40% of all DNA exoneration cases, law enforcement authorities identify the actual perpetrator based on the same DNA test results that overturned the wrongful conviction.

However, given the nature of the criminal justice system, getting an exoneration is not an easy road, says Cates.

“We have 70 people on staff, including seven staff lawyers and we have anywhere from 250 to 300 open cases at any time.

“They are incredibly difficult and we only take on cases where we feel DNA evidence can exonerate someone.”

Read: The State of Texas may have executed an innocent man – but won’t pardon him

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