The exact number is unknown—but is likely in the tens of thousands. Plus: video of Rick Perry pardoning a dead man, and a map of exonerations nationwide.
Before we talk about how many people may be behind bars for crimes they did not commit, we must acknowledge that it’s nearly impossible to know—only broad estimates are possible. There are several key reasons, experts say, why a number is so hard to ascertain. Because the sprawling criminal justice system is a patchwork of federal, state, county, and municipal courts, prisons, and jails—each with its own system (or lack thereof) of record-keeping and data-reporting—we don’t even know how many people are convicted, let alone wrongfully convicted, of crimes in the United States. “We don’t even have a denominator,” says University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett. “But the wrongful convictions we do know about suggest that there’s a big problem.”
Extrapolating from the 281 known DNA exonerations in the US since the late 1980s, a conservative estimate is that 1 percent of the US prison population, approximately 20,000 people, are falsely convicted.
In fact, since the late 1980s there have been as many as 850 exonerations nationwide, according to University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross, a leading researcher in the field. Many of them float under the radar, Gross says, unlike the highly publicized DNA exonerations.
The following map shows the 825 known exonerations in the United States since 1989, using data gathered by Mother Jones with assistance from the Center on Wrongful Convictions, The Innocence Project, and Samuel Gross. Click on each state for further details, including whether it has a compensation law for people who are wrongfully imprisoned:
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