William Blackstone, one of England’s most influential and controversial jurists, once stated that it "is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." This notion that the innocence of one person is far more important than the guilt of ten has been improved upon throughout the years, and even adopted into American systems of law. But recently, our nation’s laws concerning prisoners and cause for incarceration are straying from this idea, even though many of our founding fathers showed so much value for this principle.
Convicting the innocent is a fundamental moral flaw in our judicial system, and it has gone unnoticed by the general public and unfixed by the authorities responsible for too long. The estimated rate of wrongful convictions in the U.S. is between two and ten percent. This by itself should be enough to warrant an actual change in our prison system, but when applied to the United States’ infamously large prison population, it becomes clear that this is a much underrepresented issue. There are currently 2.2 million Americans in prison, which means that there are 40,000 to 200,000 innocent people locked behind bars at this very moment. There are more people in prison right now than people in Philadelphia, and an amount of people in those prisons at least twice the population of Seguin did nothing wrong. Most of the issues that cause this to happen are very easily preventable, like racial profiling.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people who identify themselves as white currently make up 64% of the adult population in the United States, while only 12% of the adult population identifies as black. With these percentages, it’s extremely difficult to justify why white people only make up 30% of prison populations and black people make up 33%. That difference is staggering. Even if you could make the argument that African Americans are living in harsher, crime-ridden neighborhoods, there’s still a huge discrepancy in the inmate population. Black people make up 12% of the United States, and they somehow account for more than a third of all prisoners. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment states that prisoners shall not be discriminated against because of race or religion. Such contempt for the Constitution itself in such a supposedly progressive society is troubling to say the least. It should be a given that racial stereotyping and discrimination has to end before we can create a fair judicial system, but the issue persists.
Another issue plaguing American prisons is the cruel punishment of isolated holding units. According to the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), more than 80,000 prisoners are in solitary confinement across the United States, including men, women, and even minors. If that wasn’t bad enough, prisoners of darker skin color are disproportionately discriminated against. In a study conducted by Yale, it was discovered that in Texas, Latinos made up 50% of the prisoners in solitary but only 34% of the overall prisoners. They are left in small spaces with no form of rehabilitative or educational programs for months or even years, deprived of human interaction. This is an overlooked issue, because in recent studies such as those conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), it’s been found that solitary confinement has many severe and irreversible adverse mental health effects on prisoners even if only subjected to it for a week. Even experts like Craig Haney, a social psychologist at the University of California whose work deals with criminology as well as sociology, agree that solitary confinement should be discontinued completely. It shouldn’t be news to anyone that the eighth amendment to the Constitution guarantees safety from cruel and unusual punishment, even for those in prisons.
The fact that such a clear and catastrophic violation of this right is perpetuated and seldom spoken up against is outrageous, and action should be taken as soon as possible. Electing officials that promise to solve these issues is not only a right of a voting age citizen, but a responsibility. People constantly advocate for the power of the people to override a corrupt government, but they won’t live up to that standard by actually doing their part to influence the decisions of our government.