At the end of 2011, there were 1,598,780 people incarcerated in American prisons (Bureau of Justice Statistics), a total that does not include individuals detained in jails or other facilities awaiting trial or disposition of their case.
By the strictest definitions of guilt and innocence, 100% of these incarcerated offenders were adjudicated and are considered guilty in the eyes of the system. So, none of them are technically innocent.
However, there are a number of cases in which individuals sentenced to prison have later been shown not to have committed the offense for which they were convicted. According to the Innocence Project, 302 people have been exonerated by DNA evidence since 1989.
Here is a racial breakdown of those 302 exonerees:
188 African Americans
2 Asian American
5 whose race is unknown
The causes of these wrongful convictions ranged from faulty eyewitness accounts to poor legal representation, and each one represents not only a tragedy for the individual, but also a huge failing of the justice system overall.
The Innocence Project also cites estimates that between 2.3 and 5% of incarcerated individuals are innocent. Based on the numbers of offenders incarcerated at the end of 2011, that would equate to between 36,000 and 80,000 innocents in prison.
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