The Innocence Problem

Stuart Taylor points out that while nobody sure’s exactly how many innocent people are serving time in American prisons, the number appears to run into the thousands. He argues that there are many relatively simple things — taping interrogations, organizing lineups properly, disciplining prosecutors who are guilty of serious misconduct, etc — we could do to reduce this.

I’ll observe that in both the criminal justice and counterterrorism fields, there seems to be a tendency among policymakers to treat punishing the innocent as a kind of close second-best to punishing the guilty. And, of course, in bureaucratic terms it is — a conviction is a conviction and a clearance is a clearance, whether or not you’ve got the right guy. In crime control terms, though, it’s a terrible error to be wasting resources (prison space, prosecutors’ and judges’ time) on punishing people who aren’t criminals. It’s also a terrible injustice, of course, but it’s not a tradeoff between justice and effective crime control — punishing the innocent is counterproductive, just like torturing innocent people and wasting your time chasing down their “leads.”