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A harrowing and undeniable reality: innocent people doing time

OK, maybe you're watching a movie or television crime drama and come across the part where an inmate behind bars is decrying his incarceration and passionately declaring his innocence of the alleged wrongdoing that deprived him of his freedom.

In such scenes, jailers, government lawyers and other persons involved in the criminal justice system often roll their eyes and offer up a condescending comment along the lines of, "They're always innocent, right?"

Here's a question that certainly begs to be asked, though: Just how often are they innocent? Should guilt simply and confidently be assumed once a conviction on a criminal charge is secured?

Let's cut right to the chase on this. Various media outlets are reporting the findings of researchers examining evidence for the National Registry of Exonerations. What those findings reveal is, well, arresting. A number of our readers might also find them starkly troubling.

To wit: Exonerations were reportedly at an all-time high last year. That is, 149 prisoners across the country were adjudged innocent of crimes they had been charged with and were freed from confinement.

And the report presages criticism from some that the cited number is not all that high or unreasonable, given the magnitude of the nation's justice system (and, of course, it can always be argued that any innocent person who is locked up is one too many). The researchers state that the number reflects a system with widespread and manifest problems and "points to a much larger number of false convictions."

That has to be worrisome to every thinking American who reasonably believes in bedrock principles like the presumption of innocence and a fundamentally fair criminal system where wrongfully convicted people do not languish behind prison bars.

Here are a couple of particularly interesting points that emerged from the research. First, the exonerated inmates had spent on average more than 14 years in confinement before being cleared of wrongdoing. And, second, some type of misconduct on the part of criminal justice authorities featured in about four of every 10 exonerations.

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