If the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev showed our justice system working as it is meant to, what happens when it doesn’t? One result is that innocent people go to prison, and it is very hard to get them out, even when those who sent them away have become convinced of their innocence. With 2.3 million people in jail, America has the world’s highest rates of incarceration (equaled perhaps by North Korea), and for some, it is much easier to get in than to get out. On Sunday Justice Aid sponsored a benefit for two organizations that are dedicated to freeing the wrongly convicted: Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which focuses on D.C., Maryland and Virginia; and Innocence Project New Orleans, which covers Louisiana and Mississippi, two states that have more prisoners than any other places on earth. (Full disclosure: Justice Aid was founded by my friend and cousin, Stephen Milliken, a retired judge of the D.C. superior court known for his creative approach to sentencing.)
Between them, MAIP and IPNO have to date helped exonerate 45 people who had served a combined 829 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. We read that most people who are arrested are guilty of something, and perhaps that’s so, but our system of justice isn’t supposed to be about the law of averages; it’s based on the rights of individuals. What struck me about the people we saw on Sunday was not their bitterness at being wrongfully jailed but their infectious joy at being finally free.