How Many Innocent People in Prison?

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The main point of Joshua Marquis’ New York Times op-ed seems to be that most people in prison are guilty—that is, contrary to the sorts of things you see on “In Justice” or “CSI,” courts don’t send an overwhelming number of innocent people to jail, and the handful of death row inmates whose convictions were overturned on DNA evidence represent a very small sample. Overall, Marquis calculates, the court system has an extremely high (99.97) percent accuracy rate: “most industries would like to claim such a record of efficiency.”

Okay, even if those numbers are right—and if they are, that’s still no reason to get complacent about the problems with the justice system—I’d add one other statistic here. According to a 2002 Department of Justice study on recidivism, 51.8 percent of all ex-convicts end up back in prison within three years. Of those, over half go back not for committing new crimes but for technical violations of parole—a missed appointment, a failed drug test, not landing a job. Most people in prison are guilty? Depends on how you define it.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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