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Wrongful convictions disproportionately affect Black Americans, report shows


Black people represent under 14% of the U.S. population, but they account for 53% of all the people in this country who were falsely convicted of a serious crime and then freed after serving at least part of their sentence. That's according to a new report from the National Registry of Exonerations. For more details on that, we're joined now by NPR race and identity reporter Alana Wise. Hey, Alana.


CHANG: So what did this report find exactly regarding exoneration rates?

WISE: So the report found that Black Americans are about seven times more likely than white people to be wrongfully convicted of three major crimes. So that's homicide, sexual assault and drug offenses. Reasons for that range from things like deliberate police misconduct to the fact that a lot of times, people have a really hard time identifying individuals who are of a different race than they are.

CHANG: Right. Well, I'm curious - are there some crimes that are more likely than others to see higher numbers of wrongful convictions, like when they're prosecuted?

WISE: Yeah. So actually, drug crimes were far and away the most likely to have high numbers of exonerated Black people. In fact, Black people were 19 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of drug crimes. The lead author of the study, Professor Samuel Gross, gave this example of a case out of Chicago.

SAMUEL GROSS: For a period of about 10, 12 years - maybe longer - Sergeant Ronald Watts and his subordinates essentially terrorized the residents of the Ida B. Wells housing development in Chicago. They were supposedly conducting narcotics policing, but they were also stealing money and stealing drugs from people and then selling them. And they arrested and prosecuted some who wouldn't cooperate with them and planted drugs on them. And by now, 180-some - 187 or so - have been exonerated.

CHANG: And I mean, can you just talk about the ripple effects from these wrongful convictions - like, how they affect not just the individuals themselves, but their communities, right? What have you found?

WISE: Exactly. So obviously, the people who were wrongly convicted have lost huge chunks of their lives. Due to a racially biased system, their families have gone all this time with a loved one away from home, losing their earning potential of having another working adult in the home. And communities, like Professor Gross had mentioned, are often harassed and traumatized by the people in power who are making the choice to chase these wrongful convictions. So really, it's impossible to say just how much damage these wrongful convictions have done on people's lives.

CHANG: I am curious - are we seeing more exonerations in recent years? And if we are, why is that, you think?

WISE: Yeah, so there are a few reasons why we're seeing more exonerations recently. The first thing that comes to mind is improvements in DNA testing. That has led to a lot of overturnings of the sexual assault cases that have put a lot of Black men wrongfully in jail. Secondly, there's been a much bigger public appetite - right? - for true crime and promoting justice and figuring out where there's been police malfeasance, law enforcement malfeasance, and rooting out those problems. And lastly, I would say that there is a concerted effort in some places within these cities to hold themselves accountable. There are units in which the entire point is the integrity of the police department and going back and seeing if there have been wrongful convictions or police misconduct and trying to rectify that.

CHANG: That is NPR race and identity reporter Alana Wise. Thank you, Alana.

WISE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alana Wise
Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.