How many people are wrongfully convicted?
"If you look for them, you will find them."
- Keith Findley, Director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project
Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin Law School
How many people are wrongfully convicted? There is no way to know exactly. But we can make some pretty reasonable guesses.
For starters, think of your local electrical utility. Their job is to supply electricity to your home 24/7/365. Or about 8,760 hours per year. Assume an “uptime” of 99.9%. That would mean the power would be out around 9 hours per year. Or an “error rate” of 1 in 1,000 (.001).
With wrongful convictions, we start not with hours per year but with felony (we will set aside misdemeanors) convictions per year. In Texas, that’s over 100,000.
There is no way to know the exact wrongful conviction error rate. But several studies have attempted to define a wrongful conviction error rate. The lower estimates from these studies is in the 2%-5% range. In Texas, that could mean hundreds of wrongful convictions each year.
The takeaway here is that even an otherwise “reliable” system can produce a large number of undesired outcomes. In this case, the criminal justice system doesn’t necessarily have to be “broken” to inflict pain and suffering on an intolerable number of innocent victims.