New Jersey residents have likely read news reports about individuals being released from prison after spending decades behind bars for crimes that they did not commit. Researchers from the University of Michigan's National Registry of Exonerations keep track of the number of innocent people who are freed from incarceration in the United States each year, and they released their annual report on Feb. 3.
The report reveals that 149 innocent people were freed in 2015, which is the largest number of exonerations that the researchers had ever observed. Almost a third of the exonerated prisoners had been serving sentences for drug crimes, and 54 of them had been convicted of murder. The researchers say that the rising number of exonerations was largely due to efforts by prosecutors around the country to identify and correct previous mistakes.
According to the researchers, individuals who are sent to prison for crimes they did not commit are often minorities and poor. About two-thirds of those exonerated in 2015 were members of an ethnic minority, and more than half of them were black. Prosecutors are also criticized by the researchers for aggressive plea bargain negotiation tactics that have been known to coerce innocent individuals into making false confessions. The 2015 report reveals that 27 of the exonerated prisoners had made confessions to police. The report also revealed that five of the exonerated prisoners had been sentenced to death and were awaiting execution at the time of their release.
The findings of the University of Michigan researchers may not come as a complete surprise to criminal defense attorneys who understand well how intimidating it can be to be detained and questioned by police officers. Veteran law enforcement officers are often skilled at establishing rapport and building empathy with suspects, but these tactics are rarely as effective when defense attorneys are present during interrogations.