The challenges formerly incarcerated people face vary by the misconceptions and preconceived notions that have been instilled in our society. Due to the stigma surrounding incarceration, NCIP launched the project #MakingChanges to get a sense of what our community members think about wrongful convictions and what we as a society can do more for exonerated people. #MakingChanges is a project created with the help of NCIP community volunteers Maurissa Thomas, Mira Karthik, and Akhil Iyengar. The project analyzes results from over 150 respondents who answered questions regarding their thoughts and opinions on innocence work. Our survey findings highlighted four critical areas: Exoneration, Compensation, Assistance, and Racial Justice. Read and watch below to learn from our survey respondents.
Exoneration: When a person who has been convicted of a crime is officially cleared based on new evidence proving that they did not commit the crime.
Criminal Legal System: The system of law enforcement directly involved in apprehending, prosecuting, defending, sentencing, and punishing those suspected or convicted of a criminal offense.
Recidivism: Tendency of a convicted person to re-offend/relapse in illegal behavior.
Conviction: A formal declaration of someone being guilty of a criminal offense made by the verdict of a jury or the decision of a judge in the court of law.
Incarceration: Imprisonment; being confined in prison.
#MakingChanges used a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods. We first implemented a uniform online survey of 166 participants. The responses are representative of the broader populace and do not exclude demographic groups. Respondents had varying levels of knowledge about the criminal legal system. They were recruited at physical locations and through social media platforms to take a self-administered online survey. Most reside in California or a neighboring state.
The questions were chosen to identify preconceptions of the criminal legal system and the exoneration process. Questions were intentionally phrased as unambiguous and unbiased to avoid skew in answers. The questionnaire provided neutral definitions of procedural terms to clarify questions. The questions’ formatting varied but included true or false, free response, and multiple choice. A copy of the questions can be viewed here.
In addition to the online survey, we administered in-person interviews for six random participants and two clients. The volunteer respondents were approached at physical locations and consented to recorded surveys. The former NCIP clients were contacted through NCIP staff and consented to record their interviews.
The complicated nature of California’s exoneration process is reflected in the questionnaire responses. While nearly 52% of respondents claimed a better than average knowledge of the criminal legal system, only 26% said the same about the exoneration process. This highlights the widespread lack of public awareness about the intricacies of the exoneration process. Yet, despite an in-depth understanding of the exoneration process, 98.8% of respondents agreed that an exoneration is difficult to access. Evidently, most perceive the exoneration process as “rare” and “onerous”. As one respondent put it: people want to “brush ‘miscarriages of justice’ aside as one-offs and ultimately forget them rather than seek forgiveness of the lives that have been harmed.”
“Exoneration is a step towards justice, but it is not justice itself. Exoneration may free someone from incarceration, but it can never truly liberate them.”
“No amount of money can actually compensate a person who has had years of their life stolen from them. What detriment has been caused is only imaginable to those that don’t experience it. Trauma, loss of family members and other relationships on the outside, family members struggling without you, etc. The very least that can happen is to financially compensate to make up for some of this.”
In the survey, most respondents knew that there is no form of automatic compensation for exonerated individuals. When asked if respondents believe individuals who have been exonerated should receive compensation for their time lost, the majority of them agreed that exonerated people should at the very least receive financial compensation for the time they’ve lost while wrongfully incarcerated. Many also noted that they receive assistance in handling their finances.
Overwhelmingly, the majority of respondents agreed that wrongfully convicted individuals should receive assistance to help with re-entering society. When asked what kinds of assistance wrongfully convicted individuals should receive, the responses ranged from financial compensation, housing, job training, and mental health services. The responses reflect an understanding by the respondents that being incarcerated can take an overwhelming toll on not only an individual but their entire family.
“I believe there should be a plan in place that sets these certain individuals on a path to recovery in the life and time they’ve lost from the system, as well as the pain and the emotional distress they might have gone through.”
“I think there are parts of the justice system such as bail, for-profit prisons, 3 strikes rules, and extreme racial disparities that make for an incredibly dysfunctional system that will incarcerate innocent people or incarcerate people who are lower-income and people of color at much higher rates.”
A common theme in the written responses from surveyors pointed to the issue surrounding race and incarceration. Statistics from the National Registry of Exonerations indicate that Black individuals represent a larger percentage of those exonerated than their national population, overall reflecting a similar rate of Black incarcerated individuals. Systemic racism plays a role in not only the legal system but in all parts of society. As NCIP and other organizations alike do the work to help marginalized communities, we must also address and combat racism. Our California legal system is working to combat systemic racism through the Racial Justice Act, which works to challenge racism in criminal procedures. Learn more about racial injustice from the links below.
Read. Learn. Internalize. Act. NCIP’s #MakingChanges initiative is a starting point into understanding the misconceptions and stigmas that surround incarceration in our society. Here are just a few of the amazing resources including articles, academic papers, and websites that focus on big-picture implications of the themes of this project, and how we as a society can address them. Happy reading!
Meet Our Volunteers:
Mira Karthik (she/her) is a second-year student at Willamette University studying Political Science and Spanish. She is from San Jose, California, and has a few years of experience in political and grassroots campaigning. “It has been an honor working with NCIP on the #MakingChanges initiative to analyze what justice and exoneration mean to individuals and see how we can apply that to de-stigmatizing incarceration in our communities as a whole!”
Maurissa Thomas grew up in the Bay Area and since college, she has been interested in learning more about the criminal legal system and the experiences of those who are incarcerated. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to better understand people’s perceptions of incarcerated individuals and knowledge of the exoneration process throughout the course of this project.”
Akhil Iyengar is a senior at Bellarmine College Preparatory. He is passionate about political campaigning and policy research. “The #MakingChanges initiative is a critical step towards educating the public about wrongful convictions and reversing decades of detrimental stigma.”