Interview with HRDC director Paul Wright on racial breakdown of wrongful convictions
‘Caste legal system: In US you only get as much justice as you can afford’
African Americans are more likely to be wrongfully convicted of crimes they didn’t commit than their white counterparts, according to a “Race and Wrongful Convictions” study that was released earlier this week.
“African Americans are only 13 percent of the American population but a majority of innocent defendants wrongfully convicted of crimes and later exonerated. They constitute 47 percent of the 1,900 exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations (as of October 2016), and the great majority of more than 1,800 additional innocent defendants who were framed and convicted of crimes in 15 large-scale police scandals and later cleared in ‘group exonerations,’” the report reads.
RT America's Manila Chan discussed the findings of the report with Paul Wright, executive director of Human Rights Defense Center, and editor of monthly American magazine Prison Legal News.
He said the only thing that he thought was surprising is that the numbers weren’t higher.
“It’s one of those things where it’s fair to say that racism and classism permeate every step of the criminal justice system in the US. That starts off with who is policing in the first place and to who gets arrested, who gets tried, convicted and sentenced,” Wright said.
The authors of the study only focused of three types of crime – murder, sexual assault and drug-related offenses.
“They didn’t look at other crimes such as public order offenses, firearms, for example, in which typically the only evidence often required to convict people is the say so of law enforcement and things like that. I think that… these numbers are fairly conservative and actually quite modest,” the expert said.
According to the report, African Americans are about five times as likely to go to prison for drug possession as whites. Judging from exonerations, innocent black people are about 12 times more likely to be convicted of drug crimes than innocent white people, it found.
However, there is no real intention to correct such disparity, as the American ruling class seems to be “perfectly fine” with things as they are, according to Wright.
“That goes to having criminal justice system [that] operates as a tool of social control,” he said.
Citing other studies, the expert said that black people and white people use illegal drugs in roughly the same number “and yet we’ve got a huge disparity [as to] who gets policed, arrested, charged, convicted and goes to prison for that.”
He also said that wrongful convictions seem to be “exclusive province of the poor.”
“Can anyone name a rich person who’s gone to prison for drug possession?”
One of the solutions to the problem could be proper funding of the indigent defense system, to make sure that poor people who are accused of crimes can defend themselves, Wright said.
“But again, there’s very little inclination to do that,” he added.
The new study also found that black prisoners who are convicted of murder are about 50 percent more likely to be innocent than other convicted murderers and that part of that disparity is tied to the race of the victim.
In Wright’s opinion, this shows that American legal system is “a caste system.”
“I think the reality in America is you get as much justice as you can afford. No one in this study can name a single rich person that has been convicted of a crime they didn’t commit,” he added.