“Anybody who understands the justice system knows innocent people are convicted everyday.” — Fla. Supreme Court Justice Gerald Kogan (Ret.)
James Dailey was convicted of the brutal murder of 14-year old Shelley Boggio in 1985. He was convicted based on testimony from Paul Skalink, a known con-man who was responsible for the convictions of 35 different men, telling the court each time that the man had admitted their crimes to Skalink. A few years ago, Dailey’s former roommate, Jack Pearcy, admitted in a letter to having killed the young girl. Now, nearly 30 years since his conviction, Dailey remains on death row despite overwhelming evidence that he never murdered Shelley Boggio.
Dailey’s case is not an anomaly. Our prison system is broken and the deeper you dive into the issue, the more you realize how destructive this system has been to American communities. Therefore, it’s imperative to continue the discussion that Black Lives Matter spearheaded: the extent of wrongful convictions in the United States.
Many believe that the start of American’s broken prison system can be traced back to War on Drugs, a government run program with a seemingly innocuous motivation. However, it was actually a program that targeted Richard Nixon’s political enemies. John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s chief domestic aide when the War on Drugs took place, admitted just as much:
“You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
The War on Drugs created a legacy of terrible social and economic policy designed to put African-Americans and other political enemies of Nixon in jail. And it worked, really well. In the 1960s, the incarceration rate for white Americans and African-Americans was seedy and comparable. Starting with the War of Drugs, the rate of incarcerations grew almost astronomically with the majority of those arrests being people of minority communities. Moreover, the prison system has contributed to the 72% fatherlessness rate within African American communities. 72%. That’s like going to school and 3 out of every 4 of your friends grew up without their dad present in their lives.
Moreover, it has contributed to a gross discrepancy in America’s incarceration rate compared with the rest of the world. We have just 4% of the world’s population but nearly 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. As Jason Flom, director of the Wrongful Conviction podcast put it, “Either we have the worst people in the world. [..] or we are doing it wrong”. Many of these arrests are for petty offenses such as carrying pot and many of them still relate to the government’s political need to crack down on drugs.
Another cause of the mass incarceration of American citizens is the use of dubious science within courtrooms that sway juries to believe certain “authorities” over the testimonies of people on trial. For example, forensic “experts” will bring in fingerprint evidence from a crime and use it as proof. However, it’s much harder to decipher a fingerprint during a violent situation, such as a chokehold, where fingerprints are likely smudged and not preserved well. This is never mentioned in courtrooms, but people on juries are likely to believe the forensic “expert” because they seem to have credibility and authority within their field. This kind of Junk Science has led to many wrongful convictions in America.
Finally, we need to address America’s for-profit prison system. Our country’s prisons are incentivized to lock more people up and arrest more people for petty offenses in order to maximize their revenues. The monetary motivations of these companies have exacerbated our prison issue: private prisons in the United States incarcerated 121,718 people in 2017, representing 8.2% of the total state and federal prison population. Moreover, since 2000, the number of people housed in private prisons has increased 39%.
America’s prison system is much more broken than we would like to admit. It doesn’t target minorities by accident; it was designed to target minorities and this design choice has decimated minority communities and livelihoods. We desperately need to evaluate our prison system by eliminating for-profit prisons, creating more informed juries, and grappling with the decimation the prison system has left on minority communities.
There’s a reason this article started with the story about James Dailey and not about an African-American or Latino individual. Although the prison system disproportionately affects these communities, we need to understand that the broken prison system in American hurts us all. We lose amazing community members and citizens to wrongful convictions far too often. One of our first priorities as a society should be to prevent more lives from being lost to a wrongful conviction.
Anjali Akula is a sophomore in Information Systems with a minor in Computer Science and another minor in Science, Technology and Policy. She’s one of the blog writers for CMU Triple Helix. Outside of academics, she likes taking walks and painting.