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Busted in Numbers

Last week we launched a project with ProPublica that investigated the hundreds of innocent people in Houston, Texas, who have been wrongfully convicted for drug crimes since 2003. You can gain some background on the piece, “Busted,” in Elaine’s recent blog post. Like most of our projects, though, much of the story lives in the details.

99% of drug crimes in Harris County, TX, come by way of a guilty plea bargain–a seemingly innocuous fact until you learn that government crime labs proved the innocence of 14% of the wrongfully convicted before their plea bargains were filed. For whatever reason, the prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges simply never saw or checked the evidence, and innocent defendants were convicted regardless.

The picture becomes grimmer when you learn that the official lab tests– which should be administered prior to any plea bargain– cleared the remaining 86% of innocent people weeks, months, and even years after they pleaded guilty for crimes they did not commit. Some have lived with felony convictions for up to thirteen years. 76% of the innocent still do not know, are too afraid, or do not care to clear their records.

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The demographics of those who were wrongfully convicted is, dishearteningly, just as you would expect. About half were under thirty years old at the time their cases were filed. At an age when most are advancing their education, building the foundation of their careers, or starting families– people like Michael J., Georgeana R., or Jharmeel S. have spent more than a quarter of their lives with wrongful felony convictions. They’ve likely had a hard time finding and holding jobs, securing housing, gaining government benefits, and even voting.

60% of the wrongfully convicted are black, though black people make up less than a quarter of the wider Houston population. And in a city split equally among genders, eight in ten of those with wrongful convictions are men. It comes as no surprise that when surveying the city’s wider population, for every one hundred black women between ages 20 and 39, there are only 88 black men. The phenomenon of “missing black men” by no means excludes Houston.

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So, what exactly causes so many to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit? I would argue the answer lies in an overburdened criminal justice system. 1.2 million people in the U.S. are arrested each year for drug possession. Faulty $2 drug field tests only perpetuate the problem, herding completely innocent people into a broken system. In one 2010 study in Las Vegas, one in three tests were found to generate incorrect results. Though the creators of the tests, the National Bureau of Standards, and the Department of Justice have determined that their results “should not be used for evidential purposes,” police departments around the country have been using the unreliable tests to crack down on drugs.

In an overburdened criminal justice system where too many people in power have too little time, many innocent people are falling through the cracks. The points of failure are not isolated acts of misconduct, but reflect the wider systemic failures among judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and crime labs:

  1. National standards recommend defense lawyers handle no more than 150 cases per year. In 2015, more than 35% of court appointed attorneys in Harris County had more than 150 felony cases. One had 985 cases, 446 of which were felonies. Incentivized to solve cases quickly, defense lawyers often work through plea deals rather than advising their clients to wait for official lab results.
  2. Often pressed for bail and intent on getting out of jail, innocent defendants often plead guilty rather than waiting– indefinitely– for lab results to return.
  3. With 1.2 million drug possession arrests each year, backlogged crime labs can take months or years to determine the presence of illicit substances.
  4. Judges should not permit convictions on plea deals where faulty field tests are the sole evidence.
  5. Even when test errors are discovered, defendants, their attorneys, the prosecutors, and judges rarely receive the memo.

In Houston alone, hundreds of lives have been stunted by wrongful convictions for drug crimes. We have yet to count the numbers across the country.

Visit ProPublica to see the full story.