Before we talk about how many people may be behind bars for crimes they did not commit, we must acknowledge that it's nearly impossible to know—only broad estimates are possible. There are several key reasons, experts say, why a number is so hard to ascertain. Because the sprawling criminal justice system is a patchwork of federal, state, county, and municipal courts, prisons, and jails—each with its own system (or lack thereof) of record-keeping and data-reporting—we don't even know how many people are convicted, let alone wrongfully convicted, of crimes in the United States. "We don’t even have a denominator," says University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett. "But the wrongful convictions we do know about suggest that there's a big problem."
Extrapolating from the 281 known DNA exonerations in the US since the late 1980s, a conservative estimate is that 1 percent of the US prison population, approximately 20,000 people, are falsely convicted.
In fact, since the late 1980s there have been as many as 850 exonerations nationwide, according to University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross, a leading researcher in the field. Many of them float under the radar, Gross says, unlike the highly publicized DNA exonerations.
The following map shows the 825 known exonerations in the United States since 1989, using data gathered by Mother Jones with assistance from the Center on Wrongful Convictions, The Innocence Project, and Samuel Gross. Click on each state for further details, including whether it has a compensation law for people who are wrongfully imprisoned:
These cases are the tip of an iceberg. "One difficulty in making generalizations about false convictions is that the ones we know about, exonerations, are clearly a small and unrepresentative sample of all false convictions," wrote Gross in his 2008 paper, "Frequency and Predictors of False Conviction." There are several reasons why the known exoneration cases are unrepresentative:
San Francisco Bay Area rapper Jennifer Johns has Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie to thank for her political awakening. Back in 1985, when she was just an East Oakland six-year-old with a knack for song, she heard Jackson's and Richie's "We are the World" for the first time. The tune, her parents told her, was about poverty and hunger in Africa. "First off, I said where the hell is Africa?" Johns remembers. "And secondly, I don't get this concept of hunger because we have so much food, we have so much extra here."
But she caught on quickly. The spunky youngster organized a sing-a-thon with her church, raised some money, and sent it to Bishop Tutu in South Africa to aid his fight against poverty, discrimination, and apartheid. "In that moment, I learned there was some shit going on," Johns says. "At the same time, I learned that one could sing and inspire people to know things. That was powerful."
Now Johns, 32, is doing precisely that: helping people "know things" as an ardent food-justice advocate even as she pursues a hip-hop career. A "b-girl at heart," she has performed with the likes of Lauryn Hill, Talib Kweli, KRS-One and Mos Def. Her first album, HeavyElectroMagneticSoularPoeticJungleHop, is as polychromatic as its title, ranging from thick R&B harmonies to hard-hitting rap and zingy electronica. Released in 2007, her second album, Painting on Wax, only takes the feistiness up a notch.
On Wednesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled FDA findings showing that Plan B One Step is safe to be sold to all females of childbearing age without a prescription. As we've already mentioned, there are some hefty problems with this ruling, including that now the emergency contraceptive will be kept behind pharmacy counters instead of on store shelves, where women will have to present either a prescription or identification proving they are older than 17 in order to purchase it. Yesterday, the president announced his support for the HHS decision.
The reproductive rights community has reacted strongly against the decision, wondering whether it really has to do with data. "When it comes to FDA drug approvals, contraceptives are being held to a different and non-scientific standard—in a word, politics," Center for Reproductive Rights President Nancy Northup said in a press release from the group.
Meanwhile, a less likely voice has entered the mix: that of the scientific community. The Union of Concerned Scientists published a statement yesterday on their website decrying the HHS decision—and Obama's support of it—as an attack not only on reproductive rights but also on sound science.
The UCS points out that this is the first time an HHS secretary has overruled the FDA on a drug approval. But as Erin Matson, action vice president of the National Organization of Women, noted on Twitter, the administration rarely disagrees with the FDA—drugs or no drugs. She tweeted: "Perhaps the last time the FDA was overruled: A cranberry recall in 1959. Now Obama admin after emergency contraception in 2011. OUTRAGE."
As such, yesterday's decision sets an ugly precedent for scientific assessment of drug safety. "The agency needs to be able to do its job without fearing that the integrity of its work will be compromised," says Francesca Grifo, director of the UCS's Scientific Integrity Program.
Wednesday, the Department of Health and Human Services upheld their decision to dispense Plan B One-Step—a one-pill emergency contraceptive—to young women only with a doctor's prescription, overruling an FDA request to make the drug available over the counter to women of all ages. The restriction only applies to women under the age of 17. In a statement on the HHS website, Secretary Kathleen Sebelius outlined the administration's reasoning: The FDA's conclusion that the drug is safe, she says, did not contain sufficient data to show that people of all ages "can understand the label and use the product appropriately." The outliers, she says, are the 10 percent of girls who are physically capable of child-bearing at 11.1 years old, and "have significant cognitive and behavioral differences." HHS makes no mention of women older than 11 and younger than 17—statistically, those far more likely to be having sex, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
President Obama and Cass Sunstein, OIRA administrator, chat near the West Wing.
For a while now, Obama's environmental record has been mixed—at times great, at others shoddy. But a new report (PDF), released Monday from the Center on Progressive Reform (CPR), suggests that when it comes to dismantlingenvironmental reforms, Obama's administration is actually on par with that of former President George W. Bush. What's worse, the report shows, is that their combined decade of damage has a common denominator: an elusive federal entity called the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) that has, under the auspices of both administrations, waged war on environmental, health, and safety protections.