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Black prison exonerees outpace white counterparts, study says

Innocent Black people are significantly more likely to face wrongful convictions than innocent white people, a September report by the National Registry of Exonerations found, highlighting the stark racial disparities Black Americans continue to battle within the U.S. justice system.

On high-level offenses – murder, sexual assault, and drug crimes – Black Americans are seven times more likely to be victims of police misconduct and spend more time in prison than their white counterparts, the study found.

Particularly on drug offenses, despite the use of illegal drugs being at similar rates between white and Black Americans and Black people comprising only 13 percent of the general population, 69 percent of drug crime exonerees are Black compared to 16 percent of white exonerations.

"Of the many costs that the War on Drugs inflicts on the Black community, the practice of deliberately charging innocent defendants with fabricated crimes may be the most shameful," said University of Michigan Law Professor Samuel Gross, lead author of Race and Wrongful Convictions 2022 and Senior Editor of the Registry.

The study referenced instances of police deliberately planting drugs on innocent people in order to justify arrests.

Authors of the report said that drug crime exonerations had ballooned to 554 exonerees from 221 five years ago, a majority of whom were Black, including 259 of whom had been framed by police.

The numbers

The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It studies and analyzes exonerations for homicide, sexual assault and drug offenses from 1989 to the present.

The registry's 2022 report of these criminal cases revealed a total of 3,248 exonerations by mid-August for reasons including innovations in lab testing, particularly for cases of rape and sexual assault, and findings of police and prosecutorial misconduct.

Its comparisons do not include statistics of Latinos, Asian-Americans, Indigenous people, and others, citing inadequate national criminal justice statistics.

In addition to exonerations for drug crimes, the study found that Black people were 7.5 times as likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder and almost eight times more likely to be convicted of rape.

Authors said that a number of factors played into those wrongful convictions, including high homicide rates in Black communities, and in instances of sexual assault, the difficulty of cross-racial eyewitness identification the ability of people to accurately identify individuals of another race.

But also at play were high instances of law officer malfeasance targeting Black individuals.

These were especially prevalent in the organization's group exonerations, in which hundreds of individuals included in the registry were found to be the victims of deliberate officer misconduct.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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