We don’t live in a perfect world, as evidenced by our imperfect justice system. Though it’s arguably the best justice system ever created, it’s still full of inadequacies because of the biases and flaws of human beings.

We all know that wrongful convictions must happen at least some of the time, but just how common are they? And what can we do to prevent them?

What Is a Wrongful Conviction?

In an ideal situation, if you were accused of a crime you didn’t commit, you could hire a criminal defense lawyer and make a compelling case. Your lawyer would disprove or throw out any evidence that suggests you committed the crime while helping you find evidence that proves your innocence and help you demonstrate your innocence in court. The truth would be on your side, jurors would find you innocent, and you could simply move on with your life.

In a wrongful conviction, at least one of these things is missing. Maybe you didn’t hire a lawyer. Maybe the evidence against you is apparently strong and difficult to disprove. Maybe there is no evidence persuasive enough to prove your innocence. Or maybe the jurors find you guilty despite a preponderance of evidence suggesting otherwise.

Wrongfully convicted people are innocent but found guilty.

How Common Are Wrongful Convictions?

It’s hard to answer the question of how common wrongful convictions are. There are many people in prison right now claiming to be innocent despite having committed the crime. There are also many innocent people in prison who haven’t vocalized their concerns about being falsely incriminated.

Still, researchers estimate that currently, between 4 and 6 percent of people in U.S. prisons are innocent. Given the U.S. prison population of more than 2 million, that amounts to between 80,000 and 120,000 innocent people in jail right now.

There are many situations where an accuracy of 94 to 96 percent is perfectly acceptable. But when 100,000 innocent people or more are sent to lose their freedom in a cage for no real reason, we should all be able to admit we have a massive problem on our hands.

Root Causes of Wrongful Convictions

So how does this happen?

There are many common root causes of wrongful convictions, including:

  • Biases. Unfortunately, human beings are naturally biased. We judge other people based on their skin color, ethnicity, income level, and countless other factors before we actually know them. These biases may not be overt or easy to pinpoint, but they can influence the development of a case and ultimately send an innocent person to prison based on how they look.
  • Witness inaccuracies. We tend to disproportionately value witness accounts; if someone says they saw something, they probably saw it. If multiple people say they saw the same thing, it’s almost indisputably true, right? But the reality is human memory is extremely flawed, and people do a poor job of explaining what they saw or experienced, especially if they must do so repeatedly. It’s too easy for people to misremember the details.
  • False confessions. Some people are wrongfully convicted because of false confessions. Police officers are motivated to extract confessions from the people they arrest, so they use a cacophony of different interrogation techniques and persuasion methods to do so. If a person believes the police officers are helping them, or if they don’t understand what’s going on, they may be tricked or pushed into signing a confession that doesn’t reflect reality.
  • False forensic evidence. We like to think that DNA evidence and other forms of forensic evidence are incontrovertible. But even a small mistake from a forensic analyst can lead to devastating consequences, and forensic evidence isn’t perfect even when handled perfectly.
  • Fraud and clear misconduct. Of course, there are also instances of fraud and clear misconduct. If a person is framed for a crime, or if a group of conspirators is motivated to ruin an individual’s life, an innocent person could end up imprisoned.

What Can We Do?

So what can we do about this problem, aside from reworking the entire justice system?

  • Work to exonerate innocent people. We can support and contribute to charities designed to find and exonerate innocent people in prison.
  • Understand that evidence is never foolproof. We can work to collectively understand that no piece of evidence, even DNA evidence or eyewitness testimony, is beyond scrutiny.
  • Provide more resources to the people who need them. Many people are wrongfully convicted because they don’t have the knowledge, resources, or support necessary to prove their case.

Wrongful convictions remain a massive problem in the United States, affecting 100,000 people or more. If you’re ever arrested, hire a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible – and watch out for the traps that have led countless people to conviction for crimes they didn’t commit.