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  March 14, 2017

Rattling the Bars: Blacks More Likely to Be Wrongly Convicted Than Whites

Eddie Conway talks to Alison Flowers, author of 'The Exoneree Diaries,' who discusses a new report which reveals a troubling level of racial bias in the U.S. criminal justice system
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Alison Flowers is an investigative journalist and author of "Exoneree Diaries: The Fight for Innocence, Independence and Identity." She is a two-time winner of the Hillman Foundationís Sidney Award and works at the Invisible Institute, a production company on the South Side of Chicago.


EDDIE CONWAY: I'm Eddie Conway, coming to you from Baltimore. Welcome to The Real News and this session of Rattling the Bars.

Recently there has been a national report on exonerees, and I want to look at that and see what it means. So, joining me today is the author of a book, "The Exoneree Diaries", Alison Flowers.

Alison thanks for joining me.

ALISON FLOWERS: Thank you for having me.

EDDIE CONWAY: Could you explain what this report means, and what may be its impact?

ALISON FLOWERS: Right. So, recently there have been a reported 2,000 exonerations in the United States. There's something called The National Registry of Exonerations that tracks exonerations since 1989, and that number of known exonerations, in the U.S., has now reached 2,000 exonerations. And so, as a result of having that pool to study, we can go back and look at the contributing factors. And there are other conclusions to draw from this data, as well.

Racial bias being a huge takeaway that has come out in the news this past week, in that black people are about seven times more likely to wrongly convicted of murder, than white Americans. Of course, you know, this isn't much of a spoiler alert; I think we all have, kind of known this information to be true. That black people are more likely to be the targets of police misconduct. And police conduct is a huge driver of wrongful convictions that accounts for about half of the exonerations that we know of, with official misconducts being about 51% of cases.

But, you know, the issues facing the black community in the justice system, these are things that we've known for awhile, and the data just confirms it. Of course, there are harsher sentences given to black people than whites, for the same types of crimes. And, you know, for the third year in a row now, we have a record high of exonerations in the U.S.

And so, when we look at comparing the population in the U.S., population of black people and white people, black people make up about 13% of the U.S. population. But in the data for exonerations, we're seeing that they account for 47% of exonerations.

So, that leads us to the conclusion, at least where these exonerations are concerned, is that black people are more likely to be wrongly convicted than white people.

EDDIE CONWAY: Do you think that this report will have any kind of impact on the way the courts go forward in the future, in terms of trying black people?

ALISON FLOWERS: I mean, we can hope that these revelations are something that the criminal justice community takes seriously. But there are a lot of big problems behind these numbers. We're talking about unconscious bias, which is very difficult to correct, because people don't realize that they have it.

And the we're talking about much larger issues, such as systemic racism, and discrimination against black people, among law enforcement, and as they're treated in the judicial system. You know, those are really significant issues that this data and these conclusions illuminate, but I'm not sure tackled it head-on. This is revealing to us what's already been going on with the known, and it's just kind of confirming that.

EDDIE CONWAY: Well, do you think Jeff Sessions, as Attorney General, do you think that will have any impact upon this? I mean this report; it verifies what we know for a fact, and what we have been saying for like, decades, if not centuries. But now, there's like a new attitude at the head of the Department of Justice. And that attitude seems to be the attitude that has led to a lot of these wrongful convictions. Is this something that we should be concerned about now?

ALISON FLOWERS: Well, I don't think that we have reason to believe that conditions will improve under a Jeff Sessions led Department of Justice. But changes normally happen at the local level anyway. So, looking at police reform is a local issue. Holding police officers accountable for their misconduct, making sure that states in which people live have open records, when it comes to misconduct complaints. Most states do not.

Illinois, where I live in Chicago, does have open records, when it comes to police misconduct. Those are considered public records, and so we're able to go through and look at that. But when it comes to any sort of federal measures, I don't that Jeff Sessions has shown himself to be too interested in the way the justice system breaks down for minorities.

And, in fact, you could argue that it was never designed for minorities, it was designed to protect white people. And that seems to be a trend that Jeff Sessions is very interested in continuing.

EDDIE CONWAY: Well now, do you have any idea of the breakdown of states? What's the most egregious state in terms of locking people up? I think I noticed that Alabama for the first time was not on that list. Where did most of these exonerees come from?

ALISON FLOWERS: Well, for a long time Cook County, which is where Chicago is, has sort of been the wrongful conviction capital of the U.S., where exonerations happen here more than in other counties across the country. In the last year that's actually changed, and Harris County Texas, which is where Houston is, has surpassed Cook County, where Chicago is.

One reason for that could be the growth of Conviction Integrity Units across the country. Harris County has one that has led to a lot of cases being overturned, we have one here in Cook County. And they really sprung up in recent years across the country after... kind of getting their roots in Dallas County, in Texas, and also in the Brooklyn D.A.'s office.

So, when prosecutors start to look at wrongful convictions themselves, and looking at it as an issue of conviction integrity. Making sure they got it right, and they take the initiative to go through old cases, that can normally move things along a little bit faster than the other route. Which is, these prisoners pursuing their own appeals, and trying to find someone to help them on the outside, such as an Innocence Project.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay, one final question. Is it some kind of way that people in the local municipalities can use this report to help offset some of those wrongful convictions?

ALISON FLOWERS: Well, I think the main thing that people can do is, care more, vote more, and pay more attention to who they are putting in power, in the judicial system. So, the people they elect as judges, the people they elect as prosecutors. Those decisions have a tremendous bearing on wrongful convictions, and those positions are just extremely important, when it comes to making sure people have a shake at justice.

Official misconduct, as I mentioned before, is a huge driver of wrongful convictions. That can happen at the prosecutor, and at the police level. Prosecutors, as I mentioned, are also responsible, at times, for going back and making sure that they got it right. So, whoever you elect to that position, is really sort of the gatekeeper of making sure that people are being convicted for crimes they actually committed.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. Thanks for joining me.

ALISON FLOWERS: Thank you very much.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars.




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