1.4 million. This number probably doesn’t mean anything to you, so let’s learn the context. 1.4 million people were in prison as of 2019[1]. Now mind you this isn’t including the 2.12 million in jails, whether local, state, or federal. With such a large amount of people, you would want to make sure that everyone there should actually be there and ensure that they’re also protected. After all, if you can’t protect over three million of your citizens then can you really protect the rest?

Unfortunately, while in some cases they have been protected, we haven’t as a nation done our full diligence. According to pnas.org[2] about 95% of all felony convictions are based on plea bargains where no evidence is presented, there is almost never review, and barely any defendants are represented by an attorney after conviction. Most of these deals are out of functionality and not on who is innocent or not.

I think the issue here is apparent. Imagine if you got home after a long day of work or in school only to find police waiting for you, bringing you for questioning in an environment designed to make you stressed and uncomfortable only to find out that if you’re found guilty you’ll be facing multiple years of prison or if you sign a plea deal you’ll only face six months. This and the fact that you are going to have to be spending months of your life either in jail and or dealing with courts just to prove your innocence. Many people feel as if their best chance is to make a plea deal, regardless of if they’re guilty.

My question for you, is why should we incentivize innocent people confessing they’re guilty of crimes they didn’t commit? This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t do our best to put real criminals behind bars, after all, justice cannot be served if the guilty go unpunished. But justice isn’t served either if someone is punished for something they didn’t do.

I think everyone can agree that innocent people being punished is terrible. Yet it continues to happen. But there is also the other side of the coin, what if they are guilty.

While in most cases the punishment fits the crime, there are some cases where there are inconsistencies. Take the difference between possessing cocaine and possessing alcohol (under the drinking age), both substances are illegal and both can be heavily addicting. In the case of cocaine possession of it can result up to a year of jail time. If they conclude you possessed cocaine to distribute it you can get up to 20,000$ in fines. Now let’s look at the punishment for illegally possessing or attempting to purchase alcoholic beverages. A fine of around 250$, 24-32 hours of service, and driving privileges removed for up to a year.[3] The same punishment applies to if you give alcohol to a minor knowingly. (Both of these are the specific laws in California but the punishments are similar in other states.)

Have you noticed anything different between the two? One clearly has a much harsher punishment than the other. Even if you were to say that cocaine is worse for you and that’s why it has a harsher punishment, things still wouldn’t add up. Going off of punishment alone then cocaine is 23 times worse for cocaine, this is including the 32 hours of community service and not taking into account the jail time that comes with cocaine. On top of this alcohol, actually rates as more harmful to both users and society than cocaine.[4]

It’s evident then, that there are issues here. Obviously, cocaine is horrible for you and can lead to permanent damage and it’s outlawed for a good reason, yet for its penalty to be so much worse than a comparable if not worse substance which is outright legal after the age of 21. This isn’t the only case of the punishment not fitting the crime. Sure drugs can be horrible and destructive, yet we’re treating cuts with a tourniquet, and if you think that cocaine really is bad enough to deserve its punishment, why do we ignore an equal wound?

These aren’t the only examples of problems that exist, in fact, they’re just two I chose to elaborate on. But just talking about a problem is simple complaining. That’s not my goal here, mine is to help at the very least help others to find the right direction.

How do we solve all of these issues, for some I’ll admit I don’t know, and I’m sure there will be some that you don’t either. But one of the best ways we can overcome these issues is by informing ourselves and spreading our knowledge with others. For the case of plea deals and false convictions, we can educate ourselves and vote for leaders that will make solutions and not problems, educate our children on their rights and how the government works, and help spread awareness of the issue. The same applies to imbalances in punishments.

We might not fix these issues today, or even tomorrow, but we can strive towards them. After all, if you are always pushing in the right direction, eventually one by one, you can make the world a better place.

  1.  See Bureau of Justice Statistics and vera.org for more information.
  2. https://www.pnas.org/content/111/20/7230
  3. https://www.edgarsnyder.com/car-accident/who-was-injured/teen/underage-drinking-laws.html#california
  4. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/news/20101101/alcohol-more-harmful-than-crack-or-heroin#1