How many people languishing in jails and prisons in North Carolina and nationally are innocent of the crimes they were charged with?
One prominent advocacy group points to a collection of studies estimating that as many as 5 percent of the people incarcerated in the United States are wrongfully behind bars.
When extrapolated across the country's entire prison population (which, coincidentally, leads the world in both absolute number and on a per capita basis), that means this: As many as 20,000 individuals convicted of crimes and doing time following conviction should be free and living unfettered in their communities.
Those who dispute such findings might have pause to do so following perusal and unbiased contemplation of a report released earlier this week by the National Registry of Exonerations, As noted in a Reuters article focused on the topic of innocent people behind bars, that report indicates that 149 people "were cleared in 2015 for crimes they didn't commit."
That is reportedly the largest number of exonerations ever recorded for a single year. The report's authors states that the statistic "points to a much larger number of false convictions" that simply haven't been delved into and reversed.
What is truly tragic is that many of those victims, men and women alike, had already wasted years of their lives in prison -- 14.5 years locked up, on average -- prior to exoneration.
And the reasons for their incarceration encompass a depressingly long list of wrongs, ranging from the official misconduct of police officers and false confessions (please see our January 27 blog post) to guilty pleas accepted to avoid even harsher punishment and flawed forensic conclusions.
Clearly, there is much work to be done before it can be reasonably concluded that the American criminal justice system is truly fair in a fundamental sense.
And clearly, too, the need for any person accused of criminal conduct to have ready access to a proven criminal defense attorney is manifestly evident.