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Exonerations reach record high in 2015

The criminal justice system is designed primarily to protect the innocent rather than punish the guilty, but mistakes do happen and people who have done nothing wrong are sometimes convicted and sent to prison. While prominent civil rights attorneys working with groups like the Innocence Project often feature in media stories about people who have been freed from prison after spending many years behind bars, experts in the area say that prosecutors actually deserve much of the credit. A district attorney in California set up the nation's first conviction integrity unit in 2002, and experts say that the work of such units around the country played a significant role in exonerating a record number of prisoners in 2015.

Researchers at the University of Michigan release a report dealing with exonerations every year, and the figures for 2015, which were published on Feb. 3, reveal that 28 percent of the wrongly-convicted individuals who were exonerated in 2015 were released after investigations were conducted by prosecutors in a single Texas county. More than a third of those exonerated in 2015 had been convicted of murder, and five had been awaiting execution when they were freed.

The criminal justice system is often criticized for its treatment of treating minorities and the poor, and the 2015 exoneration data will likely provide fuel for those who feel this way. Less than a third of the prisoners exonerated in 2015 were Caucasians, but about half of them were African Americans. Questions have also been raised about aggressive police tactics and the type of individuals they are employed against, and the University of Michigan report reveals that the 27 prisoners exonerated in 2015 who provided authorities with false confessions were made up largely of children and the mentally handicapped.

Reports about false confessions and innocent individuals being incarcerated will likely make somber but unsurprising reading for criminal defense attorneys. Those not used to dealing with law enforcement sometimes worry that demanding a lawyer or remaining silent will make them appear guilty, but defense attorneys could point to the type of data contained in the annual exoneration report to help criminal suspects understand that it may be wise to have an advocate on their side in an adversarial system.

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