By Erin Barrett
Innocent or Guilty? As a society, we so often rely on the sentencing of our “criminals” in the court of law. We as citizens, put our faith in the science of the system to keep our societies safe. It has become such a norm that we trust the system, and believe someone is guilty when declared guilty, and innocent when declared innocent. But what happens when these sentences are wrong? There are innocent people serving jail time for crimes they did not commit, while the real criminals are still free. One study found that, “4.1 percent of defendants who are sentenced to death in the United States are later shown to be innocent: 1 in 25” (Gross, 2015). We have come so far in the field of criminal forensics, but the system does have flaws. These flaws have been the root of the problem for wrong convictions. This paper will analyze these wrong convictions, and the effects they have on society.
Crime happens everywhere, which indicates that the possibility of a wrong conviction could as well. Therefore, this is a micro, meso, and macro-level problem. Micro-level issues “focus on individual or small-group interaction in specific situations” (Ballantine, Roberts, & Korgen, 2016). In this case, an individual who commits a crime that is handled by the city or town of which they live, such as traffic citations or rent laws (“Find free legal help”). One researcher said that, “The problem may be worst at the low end of the spectrum, in misdemeanor courts where almost everybody pleads guilty” (Gross, 2015). Meso-level issues deal with “intermediate sized units smaller than the nation but larger than the local community or even the region” (Ballantine, Roberts, & Korgen, 2016). An example of this would be an individual who commits a crime that is handled by the state government. Macro-level issues look at “entire nations, global forces, and international social trends” (Ballantine, Roberts & Korgen, 2016). These would be any crimes that are handled by the federal government, such as tax fraud or immigration matters (“Find free legal help”). Often we only hear about the wrong convictions at the federal level on death row, but who would have thought about all the wrong convictions that might be happening even in our own towns?
The sociological imagination is “the ability to understand this complex interactive relationship between individual experiences and public issues” (Ballantine, Roberts & Korgen, 2016). It is difficult to imagine being in the shoes of someone who has been wrongly convicted. But just for a moment, let us attempt it. A crime has just been committed and you have been convicted, but you had nothing to do with it. The personal trauma in this situation is feelings of hurt, violation, mistreatment, etc. Looking at the situation from the outside, though, we can see that the wrong conviction may be due to faulty forensics, false testimony, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, etc. In the large scheme of things, this is a social issue, not a personal issue. First of all, if wrong convictions are occurring, it depicts a fault somewhere in the system. That is not a person problem. Second, since people are being wrongly convicted, it means that the real criminals are still out there in society, which makes it a very dangerous social issue that we must fix soon.
Social forces play a role in almost everything. They aim to explain why people behave in certain ways (Ballantine, Roberts & Korgen, 2016). One of the social forces that convictions uses is the human need for safety and serving justice. When a crime occurs, the person is considered a danger to society. Whether it be financially or safety, they are putting themselves in a position of mistrust. Citizens of society put their trust in the courts to keep communities safe. On the other hand, justice must also be served. With murders and other violent crimes, the victim as well as the victim’s family deserves at least some feeling that justice has been served. But when this convictions are wrong, and justice really is not served, what do we do?
To cope with the problem of wrong convictions in our society, we could use the functional theory or rational choice theory. It is difficult to find an exact solution to this issue other than re-examining the evidence and witness testimonies, but these two theories can aid in determining what to do when wrong convictions do occur. The functional theory is defined as assuming “that all parts of the social structure, the culture, and social processes work together to make the whole society run smoothly and harmoniously” (Ballantine, Roberts & Korgen, 2016). When wrong convictions occur, society can use the functional theory to be sure that the wrongly convicted citizen is granted their freedom, their family is financially compensated, the true criminal is found, and justice is served. Using this theory to find a solution will be sure that all wrongs are corrected, and society is running efficiently again. The rational choice theory is defined as focusing “on humans as fundamentally concerned with self-interests, making rational decisions based on weighing costs and rewards of the projected outcome” (Ballantine, Roberts & Korgen, 2016). A solution can be found using this theory by weighing the pros and cons that are associated with convictions. Finding a solution would entail weighing the idea of possibly convicting the wrong person while the perpetrator is free. Both of these sociological theories can be used to create a plan of action when dealing with the possibility of wrong convictions occurring.
Crime is inevitable. There is always going to be crimes occurring. We cannot get rid of the court system, because that is what serves justice. The answer here is to find a more efficient way of analyzing all of the evidence and testimonies and finding a plan for when a wrong conviction does occur. It is difficult to do, but when it is between life and death in some court cases, it must be done. Using these sociological theories, it can aid in figuring out these deficits in our criminal justice system.
Ballantine, J.H., Korgen, K.O., & Roberts, K.A. (2016). Our Social World: Introduction to Sociology. Los Angeles: SAGE.
Find free legal help and information about your legal rights from nonprofit legal aid providers in your state. (n.d.). Retrieved April 27, 2017, from http://www.lawhelp.org/resource/the-differences-between-federal-state-and-loc
Gross, S. R. (2015, July 24). The staggering number of wrongful convictions in America. Retrieved April 26, 2017, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-cost-of-convicting-the-innocent/2015/07/24/260fc3a2-1aae-11e5-93b7-5eddc056ad8a_story.html?utm_term=.2a24cfa6a0f2
Ballantine, J.H., Korgen, K.O., & Roberts, K.A. (2016). Our Social World: Introduction to
Sociology. Los Angeles: SAGE.
Find free legal help and information about your legal rights from nonprofit legal aid providers in
your state. (n.d.). Retrieved April 27, 2017, from http://www.lawhelp.org/resource/the-differences-between-federal-state-and-loc
Gross, S. R. (2015, July 24). The staggering number of wrongful convictions in America.