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Perceptions toward wrongful convictions and needed reforms in the criminal justice system: Does working experience in law enforcement matter?

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Published onFeb 28, 2024
Perceptions toward wrongful convictions and needed reforms in the criminal justice system: Does working experience in law enforcement matter?
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ABSTRACT

This study proposes to investigate how public views on the wrongful conviction issue are connected with the perceived need for criminal justice reform and whether the professional experience in law enforcement influences these perceptions. This study employs a qualitative research design, deriving its conclusions from the comparative analysis of the survey responses concerning the issue of wrongful convictions and the criminal justice system collected from 45 law enforcement professionals and 35 individuals without such experience. The comparative results reveal that for the respondents without working experience in law enforcement, racial/ethnical bias was one of the most substantial issues of wrongful convictions, while for the respondents with working experience in law enforcement, the main issue was connected to the harmful effect of such cases on the victims, their families, and society. The respondents from both groups believe that there is a need for criminal justice reform, particularly in several specific directions, including the justice system itself, legal defense, policing, investigation, diversity in the justice system, DNA technology, jury selection, training for law enforcement, prosecution, and defense attorney. However, there are notable differences between the groups in their ranking of the focus areas. The differences between the groups with different backgrounds and perspectives on the issue suggest that the development and implementation of the reform initiatives may require tailored approaches to address the specific concerns of each group.

Keywords: wrongful convictions, perception, qualitative study, criminal justice reforms, USA


Despite a considerable effort made by the U.S. government to ensure fairness in the application of the law and elimination of discriminatory practices that once characterized the criminal justice system, the studies consistently report that in the eyes of many Americans, particularly African Americans, the system continues to be unfair and inequitable (Bobo & Thompson, 2006; Feagin, 2013; 2020; Gross et al., 2005; Westervelt & Cook, 2010; Young, 2000, 2004). The innocence movement, often referred to as the “civil rights movement of the twenty-first century” (Medwed, 2008), has underscored the need for effective solutions to address the wrongful conviction issue (Zalman et al., 2012). In 2022, President Joe Biden signed into law a spending package that allocates a record $24 million to the Wrongful Conviction Review grant program and the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing grant program (Innocence Project, n.d.).

Norris and Mullinix (2020) posited that wrongful convictions hold significance in shaping public perceptions within the realm of criminal justice, extending beyond the purview of the death penalty. They emphasized the need for continued research to examine the multifaceted dimensions through which the concept of innocence influences public opinion in this context. Blandisi, Clow, and Ricciardelli (2015) proposed that research into public perceptions could catalyze the development and implementation of novel policies to enhance support for wrongfully convicted individuals. These policies may encompass provisions for post-exoneration services to assist exonerees and mitigate the stigmatization associated with wrongful convictions. Understanding public attitudes concerning matters within the domain of criminal justice, including perceptions related to wrongful convictions, holds significance due to the influence of public opinion on the formulation of policies in this context (Burstein, 2003; Ceka et al., 2023; Clow et al., 2012; Huff et al., 1986; Norris & Mullinix, 2020; Reid, 1995; Zalman, 2010).

While research investigating wrongful convictions and their effects on the U.S. criminal justice system is ample (Acker, & Redlich, 2019; Gould & Leo, 2010; Gould et al., 2014; Gross, 2013; 2017; Leo, 2005; 2017; Simon, 1993; Zalman et al., 2012), there are fewer studies on public perceptions of wrongful convictions (Bell et al., 2008; Ceka et al., 2023; Clow et al., 2012; Clow & Ricciardelli, 2014; Norris & Mullinix, 2020; Zalman et al., 2012). Zalman et al. (2012) stated that “there has been no examination of how citizens view this problem” (p.51), suggesting that opinion surveys about wrongful convictions should be conducted nationally or in different states selected for their differences (e.g., regarding race, ethnicity, and religious composition).

Furthermore, most studies on public perceptions of wrongful convictions have been largely quantitative (e.g., Ceka et al., 2023; Norris & Mullinix, 2020; Ramsey & Frank, 2007; Reid, 1995; Zalman et al., 2012), whereas the research investigating the stigmatizing experiences of exonerees and perception towards stigmatization of wrongly convicted individuals has been mostly qualitative (e.g., Blandisi et al., 2015; Clow & Leach, 2015b; Lewis & Sommervold, 2015; Simon, 1993). In addition, despite the growing body of research, there has yet to be an examination of differences and similarities in how citizens with and without working experience in law enforcement view this problem.

This study aims to fill that gap in the literature by providing a comparative analysis of law enforcement professionals’ perceptions of wrongful convictions and a need for reform in the criminal justice system versus the opinions of the general public. More specifically, the study proposes to explore and assess how the general public and professionals in law enforcement perceive wrongful convictions and how this issue should be solved based on their opinions. To expand the research on public perceptions of the wrongful conviction issue and criminal justice reform, the study uses a qualitative data collection method (e.g., open-ended questions in a survey) and a constructed grounded approach to analyze data (Charmaz, 2014; Mills et al., 2006). This strategy enables issues considered important by respondents (e.g., race/ethnicity, compensation to exonerees) to emerge from the data instead of approaching the data with perceived hypotheses guiding our analyses.

The paper is organized in the following way. The first section provides a literature review on perceptions of wrongful convictions. The second section demonstrates the importance of wrongful convictions issues in the USA. The third section justifies the research methodology. The third section includes the analysis of the general public’s perceptions and perceptions of law enforcement professionals toward wrongful convictions. The next section presents the findings, discussing the differences and similarities of the general public’s perceptions of law enforcement professionals toward wrongful convictions. The final part of the paper offers practical recommendations for criminal justice scholars and practitioners.

Previous Research

Numerous studies have emphasized that wrongful convictions pose a significant challenge to the integrity and legitimacy of the criminal justice system (Gross, 2013; Gross & Shaffer, 2012; Huff, 2016; Huff et al., 1996; Kruse, 2006; Luna, 2005; Medwed, 2005; Zalman 2008, 2010; Zalman et al., 2012). Wrongful convictions, also known as exonerations, involve an official declaration that a defendant is not guilty of a crime for which they had previously been convicted (Findley, 2010; Gross, 2008). Gross (2013) suggested that the rate of false convictions for serious violent felonies in the United States may fall in the range of 1% to 5%. According to Norris and Mullinix (2020), an error rate of 5% would translate to over 100,000 innocents being incarcerated. Loeffler, Hyatt, and Ridgeway (2019) estimated that wrongful convictions occur in 6% of criminal convictions, impacting an intake population of state prisoners. Importantly, this estimation varied significantly among different conviction types, ranging from a minimal 2% rate within DUI convictions to a substantial 40% incidence in convictions related to rape cases (Loeffler et al., 2019). Based on a sample of 798 Ohio criminal justice professionals (police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges), Ramsey and Frank (2007) examined respondents’ perceptions regarding the frequency of system errors and wrongful felony convictions. They found that law enforcement professionals perceive system errors to occur in their own jurisdictions in .5% to 1% of all felony cases, and in the United States in 1% to 3% of all felony cases. Respondents specify an acceptable rate of wrongful conviction to be less than .5% (Ramsey & Frank, 2007)

Killias (2013) found that “exonerations, at least in serious crimes, are substantially more frequent in the United States compared to Europe” (p.61). Huff (2004) points out that wrongful convictions have been an issue dating back to the colonial days, even before the United States became an independent nation. Gross et al. (2014) found 328 exonerations of defendants sentenced to death or long prison terms in the United States over 15 years, averaging about 20 exonerations per year. In contrast, countries like Germany, France, and Switzerland have lower proportions of exonerations (Kessler, 2008; Killias, 2013). The most recent report from the National Registry of Exonerations (2022) reveals that there have been 3,248 innocent people exonerated in the United States since 1989, as of August 8, 2022. Of note, African Americans, who constitute only 13% of the American population, make up a significant portion of those wrongfully convicted and later exonerated. They account for 47% of the 1,900 exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations as of October 2016. Additionally, they represent the majority of more than 1,800 innocent defendants who were framed and convicted in 15 large-scale police scandals and later cleared, as highlighted by Gross (2017).

Scholars have extensively examined the factors contributing to wrongful convictions (e.g., Campbell & Denov, 2005; Garrett, 2011; Killias, 2013; Kassin et al., 2010; Wells et al., 1998; Wells & Leo, 2008; Zalman & Larson, 2015) and identified six "canonical factors" contributing to these injustices, such as mistaken witness identification (Loftus, 2005; Wells & Quinlivan, 2009; Wells et al., 2006), perjury or false accusations, false confessions (Wells & Leo, 2008), false or misleading forensic evidence, official misconduct (Covey, 2013; Yaroshefsky, 2004), and inadequate legal defense (Berube et al., 2022). Researchers have also explored factors such as psychological influences on eyewitnesses, informants/snitches (Fessinger et al., 2020; Neuschatz et al., 2008), cognitive biases among experts and jury members (Killias, 2013; Najdowski & Stevenson, 2022), judicial processes like plea bargaining and trials, and forensic science errors (Covey, 2013; Gould et al., 2014; Henry, 2020; Stinson et al., 1996; Wells & Quinlivan, 2009; Wells et al., 2006).

The evidence suggests that wrongful convictions have a discernible impact on criminal justice practices (Baumgartner et al., 2008; Fan et al., 2002; Norris et al., 2019; Young, 2000), as exemplified by their influence on the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois (Warden, 2012) and the reduction in death sentences in several states (Baumgartner et al., 2008). Colvin (2009) emphasizes that a wrongful conviction implies a failure of the justice system, indicating that a conviction was obtained, in whole or in part, due to influences that have no place in a democratic society. As Norris et al. (2019) underscore, “as more innocents are exonerated, and researchers learn more about the causes of wrongful convictions, criminal justice practices have been altered to reduce the number of erroneous convictions” (p. 597).

The criminal justice system incurs expenses related to reinvestigating cases, covering incarceration costs, and compensating the wrongfully convicted (Clow et al., 2012; Karaffa et al., 2017). This not only affects those wrongly punished but also erodes the integrity of the criminal justice system, fractures families and communities, and represents an injustice to the victims of the original crimes (Gould & Leo, 2010; Konvisser, 2012). The exoneration of wrongfully convicted individuals can have a profound impact on the original crime victims, leading to feelings of guilt, fear, helplessness, devastation, and depression (Williamson et al., 2016).

Stereotypes and beliefs about exonerees being still guilty of the original crimes persist, which can subject them to continued scrutiny and discrimination (Barrett, 2017; Gould & Leo, 2016; Katsman, 2018; Shlosberg et al., 2012; Shlosberg et al., 2020; Williamson et al., 2016). Wrongfully convicted individuals not only suffer mentally, physically, and personally (Campbell & Denov, 2004; Clow & Leach, 2015a; 2015b; Scheck et al., 2000) but also place a heavy burden on society (Clow et al., 2012; Simon, 1993). Psychological issues such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder often afflict those wrongfully incarcerated (Konvisser, 2012; Scott, 2010). Even brief wrongful detention, lasting less than 24 hours, can lead to long-term psychological trauma (Simon, 1993). Given that wrongly convicted individuals serve an average of 11 years in prison (Gross & Shaffer, 2012), the damages incurred are substantial. Victims of wrongful convictions may experience emotional trauma akin to their original victimization, and there is often a lack of support services available to them (Chinn & Ratliff, 2009; Katsman, 2018; Scheck et al., 2000; Shlosberg et al., 2012; Shlosberg et al., 2020; Williamson et al., 2016).

A number of studies have examined the perceived rate of wrongful convictions and how they compare with the official estimates ranging from 1% to 5% of total convictions in the United States (Gross et al., 2013; Ramsey & Frank, 2007; Risinger, 2007; Zalman et al., 2008; Zalman, 2014). A statewide survey of Michigan residents conducted by Zalman, Larson, and Smith (2012) found that attitudes public perceptions of wrongful convictions varied significantly across demographic groups, with about 55% of respondents believing that wrongful convictions occurred at least occasionally and about 20% believing such cases occurred frequently.

Research has also explored the emergence of the “innocence frame,” but its effects on public opinion have been relatively understudied. Norris and Mullinix (2020) employed framing theory to investigate how different presentations of wrongful conviction information influence attitudes toward the justice system. They found that factual information about exonerations reduced support for capital punishment and eroded trust in the justice system. Ricciardelli et al. (2009) also suggested that increased attention to errors diminishes trust in the broader criminal justice system. A small number of studies have examined the extent to which various groups, including the general public (Ceka et al., 2023; Reid, 1995; Zalman et al., 2012), students (Bell et al., 2008; Ricciardelli & Clow, 2012; Ricciardelli et al., 2009), police, lawyers, and judges, are aware of wrongful convictions (Ramsey & Frank, 2007; Wells & Leo, 2008; Wells et al., 1998; Zalman et al., 2008). After hearing an exoneree’s lecture, students were more likely to believe that everyone could be at risk of being wrongly convicted, suggesting a reduction in the belief that exonerees are somehow different (Ricciardelli & Clow, 2012).

Greater consumption of television news and social media posts has been associated with increased fear and concerns about crime, although newspaper and Internet news consumption often does not yield the same effects (Callanan & Rosenberger, 2011; Chiricos et al., 1997; Chiricos & Eschholz, 2002; Choi, 2021; Kohm et al., 2012; Roche et al., 2016; Romer et al., 2003; Weitzer, 2002). Yaroshefsky (2004) argues that heightened media attention to exonerations prompted the justice system to examine potential wrongful conviction cases and enact criminal justice reforms. Popular media, such as the Netflix series “When They See Us,” based on the true story of the Central Park Five, and Season 1 of the “Serial” podcast (Bennet, 2019) led to a new trial for Adnan Syed (Stack, 2018) and have had a significant impact on public awareness and the justice system’s actions.

The literature review findings highlight several key aspects of wrongful convictions, emphasizing the importance of understanding public perspectives in addressing this critical issue. First, scholars have underscored that wrongful convictions have been recognized as a failure of the justice system that poses a significant challenge to the integrity and legitimacy of the criminal justice system. Second, the literature notes that increased media attention and exposure have contributed to public understanding and skepticism about the criminal justice system's reliability. This newfound awareness has led to changes in public opinion and attitudes toward the justice system. This study builds on previous research on perceptions of wrongful convictions. The study focuses on comparing the perceptions of the general public and law enforcement professionals regarding wrongful conviction issues and the perceived need for criminal justice reform.

Method

Data Collection

The study’s conclusions derive from the analysis of the online survey on public perceptions about wrongful convictions and the need for reforms in criminal justice collected online from 1 November 2021 through 25 February 2022. The survey questions were adopted from the study conducted by Zalman et al. (2012) and revised by adding additional questions, including two open-ended questions: “(1) What are your feelings about wrongful convictions? (2) What factors, in your opinion, will help reduce the occurrence of wrongful convictions? Please write your feelings or opinions.”

The survey protocol was reviewed and approved by the Institutional Review Board of the authors’ university. Eligible respondents were adults of 18 or older who could speak English and were residing in the United States. The respondents were asked to give informed consent to participate in the study voluntarily. They were informed about the purpose of the study, along with the procedures for maintaining anonymity and confidentiality. The respondents were not offered monetary compensation or other incentives to participate in the study and could leave the survey at any time should they decide. The survey description included detailed instructions on completing the survey and a required time commitment. Each participant answered the same questions about their demographics, perceptions about the occurrence of wrongful convictions in the U.S., and their sources of knowledge about wrongful convictions. To ensure that all respondents have a greater clarity and equal understanding of the research concept, the survey included the definition of wrongful convictions offered by Zalman et al. (2012).

The study was administered through the Webanketa software, a free online tool to conduct surveys and collect data (Nardyuzhev, Nardyuzhev, Marfina, & Kurinin, 2020). Although the online surveys are nonprobability-based, and the electronic distribution makes it challenging to determine the response rate and characteristics of non-respondents (Dutwin & Buskirk, 2017), this method was selected because of the reduced costs related to the dissemination of the questionnaire and collection of the results (Vehovar & Manfreda, 2017). Furthermore, online surveys tend to produce higher response rates in a shorter period while providing a unique opportunity to engage with diverse populations that would otherwise be difficult to reach through traditional offline methods like telephone or postal mail (Dutwin & Buskirk, 2017). The link to the survey was distributed electronically among the authors’ networks and through the authors’ university system. The survey was also advertised on the authors’ accounts on social media platforms, namely, Facebook and LinkedIn, inviting people to participate in the study and share the invitation link with others. The participants could complete the questionnaires with open-ended questions remotely, which was a significant advantage during a pandemic. Electing to use an electronic questionnaire included the absence of cost in disseminating and collecting the survey (Vehovar & Manfreda, 2017). A significant disadvantage of the survey inquiry strategy is that the data collection depends on the participant's integrity. The most common errors are due to unanswered questions or questions answered based on participant bias.

The survey generated 325 responses, including 80 responses to two open-ended questions, including 45 responses from respondents with working experience in law enforcement (52.3% of total respondents with working experience in law enforcement) and 35 respondents from respondents without working experience in law enforcement (14.7% of total respondents without working experience in law enforcement).

Sample Characteristics

Personal information was collected using demographic questions, including gender, age, education level, ethnicity, and working experience in law enforcement. In agreement with findings of gender identity research (Jacobson & Joel, 2019) that individuals may self-label themselves differently from their birth-assigned category or embrace identities that reject the gender binary, gender is determined as a gender self-reported by the individual at the time of the survey. Specifically, the measure included three categories: male, female, and other. The gender distribution of the sample shows that about 47.5 percent (n=38) of the respondents are female, and 52.5 percent (n=42) are male. None of the respondents self-identified with the “other” gender identity category. Table 1 illustrates the study participants’ demographics.


Table 1: Study Participants Demographics

General Public

Respondents with working experience in law enforcement

N

%

N

%

Age

18-21

0

0

0

22 – 25

0

0

3

6.7

26 – 33

4

11.4

2

4.4

40 – 49

7

20

9

20

50 – 55

9

25.7

2

4.4

Older than 50

15

42.9

29

64.5

Gender

Female

11

31.4

27

60

Male

24

68.6

18

40

Ethnicity

Black

15

42.8

29

64.4

White

14

40

9

20

Hispanic

3

8.6

2

4.4

Other

3

8.6

5

11.2

Education

High school

0

0

3

6.7

Credit courses/ no degree

3

8.6

6

13.3

Associate degree

1

2.8

5

11.2

College degree

13

37.2

11

24.4

Master

18

51.4

12

26.7

PhD

0

0

8

17.7

Total

35

100

45

100

Note: Demographic data is based on participants self-reports.


Ethnicity was captured as a nominal level variable that included six categories: African American/Black-Non-Hispanic, Asian, Hispanic Latino, Native American, White, and other. Due to a small number of Asian and Native American respondents, the sample was split into four groups instead of six: White, Black, Hispanic, and other ethnicities.

Data Analysis

Analysis and Coding

The qualitative approach was used to collect and analyze the information from the participants related to the general public’s perceptions and respondents with working experience in law enforcement perceptions towards wrongful convictions. We coded two open-ended questions: “What are your feelings about wrongful convictions? Please write your feelings or opinions” and “What factors, in your opinion, will help reduce the occurrence of wrongful convictions?” and compared the responses of the public and professional respondents.

We employed a grounded theory approach for our analysis in which we iteratively used the literature and the data to generate our constructs inductively and systematically (Strauss & Corbin, 1998; Charmaz, 2014). Employing an open coding process (Strauss & Corbin, 1998), we individually coded a subset of the interviews by assigning labels to sentences and paragraphs; this initial coding focused on how participants defined their feelings about wrongful convictions and what factors could help reduce the occurrence of wrongful convictions. Once the codebook was finalized, all answers to open-ended questions were analyzed. We then specified common themes in the answers by composing and comparing thematic memos. Then, an expert in coding qualitative research provided analysis and revisions of coding by the author. For inter­coder reliability, we discussed our coding and agreed on first-order codes. We used these codes as a guideline for subsequent coding and added new codes as they emerged through our analysis and discussion. In the next step, we grouped codes into higher-­level categories and used axial coding to establish connections between the categories (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Inductive analysis was used to examine the transcribed data, wherein the categories, themes, and patterns came from the data (Janesick, 1998, 2001). It is important to note that the themes and categories constructed from the answers to open-ended questions were not imposed before data collection. The codebook was an extensive Excel spreadsheet/table in which we organized the research categories and tallied responses. We also included respondents’ demographic information (e.g., ethnicity, gender, education). We used NVivo software to manage the data and electronically link transcript text to codes and categories.

Findings

Feelings About Wrongful Convictions

The findings from this study reveal several important themes and perspectives, providing valuable insights into the perceptions of respondents without working experience in law enforcement and those with working experience in the field.

General Public Perceptions

Based on the analysis, the following themes emerged from respondents without working experience in law enforcement responses: (1) race/ethnicity-based issue (37% of respondents); (2) unfair justice system (23%); (3) devastating effect on wrongfully convicted and their families (23%); and (4) compensations for wrongful convictions (14%) (Appendix).

Race/Ethnicity-Based Issue. A significant portion of respondents (37%) emphasized the race and ethnicity-based aspects of wrongful convictions. This underscores the recognition among the public that racial disparities play a crucial role in wrongful convictions. The alignment of these findings with prior research by scholars highlights the persistent concern regarding racial inequalities within the criminal justice system (e.g., Brick, Taylor, & Esbensen, 2009; Brown, 2005; Brown & Benedict, 2002; Brown et al., 2009; Brunson & Weitzer, 2009; Hurst, 2007; Zalman et al., 2012; Wästerfors & Burcar, 2020; Wu et al., 2015). The findings are also consistent with the suggestion by Feagin (2013) that there is an absence of black prosecutors and other prosecutors of color, as well as lawyers of color, in the criminal justice system.

Unfair Justice System. Respondents expressed concerns about an unfair justice system, which includes issues related to ineffective defense assistance. This finding aligns with previous research by Gould and Leo (2010) and reflects the broader recognition that wrongful convictions are often the result of systemic flaws and errors within the criminal justice process (Zalman et al., 2012).

Devastating Effect on Wrongfully Convicted and Their Families. About a quarter of respondents (23%) highlighted the devastating impact of wrongful convictions on both the wrongfully convicted individuals and their families. This perception reflects an understanding that exonerees face substantial challenges upon their release, including difficulties in finding housing and employment, reintegrating into society, coping with stigma, and dealing with the breakdown of family structures. These findings resonate with the conclusions of numerous scholars who have explored the profound consequences of wrongful convictions on individuals and their families (e.g., Blandisi et al., 2015; Chinn & Ratliff, 2009; Scott, 2010; Shlosberg et al., 2012, 2020; Simon, 1993; Williamson et al., 2016; Zannella et al., 2020).

Compensations for Wrongful Convictions. The study also indicates that about 14% of respondents recognized that exonerees deserve compensation due to the time lost while wrongly incarcerated and the harm done to their reputations. These attitudes align with previous research (e.g., Clow et al., 2012; Clow & Leach, 2015a; Clow & Leach, 2015b; Clow & Ricciardelli, 2014; Karaffa et al., 2017; Reid, 1995; Shlosberg et al., 2012, 2020) and reflect a public belief in the importance of providing restitution to those who have suffered wrongful convictions. The results might suggest that the public’s understanding of wrongful convictions may extend beyond their positive attitude toward exonerees, reflecting a willingness to support the victims after their release.

Law Enforcement Professionals

The perceptions toward wrongful convictions offered by law enforcement professionals are categorized into the following four themes: (1) devastating effect on wrongfully convicted, their families, and society (17.8%); (2) must be preventable (12%); (3) issues with judicial system (12%); and (4) sad feelings for wrongfully convicted (11%) (Appendix).

Devastating Effect on Wrongfully Convicted, Their Families, and Society. A significant theme (17.8%) among law enforcement professionals was an acknowledgment of the devastating consequences of wrongful convictions, not only on the individuals directly affected but also on their families and society at large. This recognition suggests a heightened awareness within the law enforcement community of the wide-ranging impacts of miscarriages of justice.

Must Be Preventable. Some respondents (12%) emphasized the importance of preventing wrongful convictions. This theme underscores the perspective that the criminal justice system should be designed and operated in a way that minimizes the occurrence of wrongful convictions. The emphasis on prevention aligns with the broader goal of enhancing the reliability and fairness of the justice system.

Issues with the Judicial System. Another theme (12%) identified by law enforcement professionals relates to issues within the judicial system. This suggests an awareness among this group of respondents of systemic challenges and shortcomings within the legal process that contribute to wrongful convictions.

Sad Feelings for Wrongfully Convicted. Law enforcement professionals (11%) expressed feelings of sadness and empathy for wrongfully convicted individuals. This empathetic response suggests a recognition within this group of the human toll of wrongful convictions and a sense of compassion toward those affected.

Overall, the findings provide a comprehensive view of public perceptions regarding wrongful convictions, with distinct themes emerging from respondents without law enforcement experience and those with law enforcement experience. These themes highlight the significance of issues related to race, fairness, systemic flaws, the impact on individuals and families, the need for compensation, and the importance of prevention. The findings also emphasize the differences in the perceptions of respondents without working experience in law enforcement and those with working experience in the field. Respondents without law enforcement experience placed significant emphasis on issues related to race, fairness, the impact on individuals and families, and the need for compensation. In contrast, law enforcement professionals demonstrated a greater awareness of the broader societal consequences of wrongful convictions, a focus on prevention, and a recognition of issues within the judicial system. These differences likely arise from the distinct backgrounds and experiences of the two groups within the criminal justice context.

Factors to Reduce the Occurrence of Wrongful Convictions

The responses to the second question offer insights into the factors that could help reduce the occurrence of wrongful convictions from the perspectives of both the general public and law enforcement professionals.

General Public Perceptions

Multilevel Approach to Improvement. Respondents from the general public proposed a multilevel approach to improving various aspects of the legal system (Appendix). Their recommendations encompassed several key elements, including the justice system itself, legal defense, police practices, investigation methods, diversity within the justice system, advancements in DNA technology, jury selection procedures, and community education. This comprehensive approach suggests that the public recognizes the need for reforms across multiple dimensions of the criminal justice system.

Recognition of Systemic Issues. The emphasis on diversity in the justice system, DNA technology, and community education suggests that the general public perceives the need for systemic changes that address underlying issues contributing to wrongful convictions. These recommendations reflect a desire to improve the fairness, accuracy, and transparency of the criminal justice process.

Law Enforcement Professionals

Focus on Core Justice System Personnel. Law enforcement professionals identified several key areas for improvement within the criminal justice system (Appendix). Their recommendations centered on enhancing the investigative process, improving the overall justice system, providing training for law enforcement personnel, optimizing police practices, and enhancing the roles of prosecutors and defense attorneys. This focus on core justice system personnel aligns with the suggestions of scholars that criminal justice reforms should prioritize key actors within the system, including police, prosecutors, judges, forensic scientists, and defense attorneys.

Alignment with Scholarly Perspectives. The findings among law enforcement professionals are consistent with the recommendations of scholars who have emphasized the significance of reforming fundamental aspects of the criminal justice system, particularly core personnel and processes. Scholars have argued that improving the training, practices, and coordination of these key individuals and entities can contribute significantly to reducing wrongful convictions (Loeffler et al., 2019; Norris & Mullinix, 2020; Zalman & Larson, 2015).

These findings suggest that both the general public and law enforcement professionals recognize the need for multifaceted reforms within the criminal justice system to reduce wrongful convictions. While the general public emphasizes a comprehensive approach that spans various dimensions of the system, law enforcement professionals focus on core personnel and processes. The alignment of these recommendations with scholarly perspectives underscores the importance of addressing systemic issues and enhancing the performance of key actors within the criminal justice system to prevent wrongful convictions and improve overall fairness and accuracy (Zalman & Larson, 2015). These findings also suggest that while there is a shared belief in the need for criminal justice reform, the specific priorities and areas of focus can differ between groups with different backgrounds and perspectives, such as non-law enforcement individuals and those with professional law enforcement experience. These differences in priorities can have implications for the development and implementation of reform initiatives, as they may require tailored approaches to address the specific concerns of each group.

Conclusion

The study findings shed light on several crucial aspects of public perceptions related to wrongful convictions and the pressing need for criminal justice reform. First and foremost, the study demonstrates that both the general public and law enforcement professionals are aware of and concerned about the issue of wrongful convictions within the criminal justice system. This awareness reflects the growing prominence of this issue in public discourse and underscores its significance in contemporary discussions about the legal system, reflecting the sentiments of numerous scholars (Berube et al., 2022; Henry, 2020; Kleinert, 2006; Medwed, 2008; Norris et al., 2019). Furthermore, this alignment between public perceptions of wrongful convictions and the recognition of the urgent need for reform in the criminal justice system corroborates Norris and Mullinix’s (2020) assertion that debates about U.S. criminal justice reform revolve around wrongful convictions.

Second, respondents, particularly those without law enforcement experience, identified race and ethnicity-based issues as significant factors in their understanding of wrongful convictions. This recognition of racial disparities within the criminal justice system emphasizes the need for addressing systemic bias and discrimination, aligning with the insights offered by previous research (National Registry of Exonerations, 2022; Taslitz, 2006; Zannella, 2020). The finding also echoes the observation by Feagin (2013) that the criminal justice system lacks representation of Black prosecutors and other prosecutors of color, as well as lawyers of color.

Third, our study underscores strong support for criminal justice reforms, with both groups of respondents sharing the perception that wrongful convictions should be exceedingly rare or nonexistent (Clow et al., 2012; Clow & Ricciardelli, 2014; Gould, 2008; Ramsey & Frank, 2007; Reid, 1995). In addition, the findings indicate that respondents, whether with or without experience in law enforcement, recognize the multifaceted challenges faced by wrongfully convicted individuals, including reintegration into society, enduring stigma, family-related issues, and the imperative for compensation.

Fourth, the respondents suggested improvements in various aspects of the legal system, suggesting improvements in various aspects of the legal system, including the justice system itself, legal defense, police, investigation, diversity in the justice system, DNA technology, jury selection, training for law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and community education. This comprehensive approach recognizes that reform efforts should encompass multiple dimensions of the criminal justice process. Law enforcement professionals emphasize the importance of focusing on core justice system personnel and processes, including the investigative process, the justice system as a whole, training for law enforcement personnel, police practices, and the roles of prosecutors and defense attorneys. This aligns with scholarly perspectives that advocate for reforms centered on key actors within the system (Gould, 2008; Killias, 2013; Kruse, 2006; Medwed, 2005; Leo, 2017; Najdowski & Stevenson, 2022; Yaroshefsky, 2004; Zalman, 2008; 2010; Zalman & Larson, 2015).

Limitations and Future Studies

One of the limitations of our study stems from the fact that we used a non-probability sampling method that produced a highly skewed sample, overrepresented by the African American respondents and by older individuals holding education degrees at the graduate level. Therefore, the generalizability of our study's results is limited, as they may not apply to the entire general public and professionals in law enforcement. To address these limitations, future studies should aim to incorporate larger probability-based samples, providing a more robust foundation for estimating perceptions across different demographic groups. Given the growing prominence of wrongful conviction issues and the central role of the criminal justice system in contemporary social discussions (e.g., Alexander, 2012; Norris & Mullinix, 2020), it is imperative that future research explores the perceptions of both the general public and law enforcement professionals regarding wrongful convictions and the need for criminal justice reforms. Enhancing the methodology, such as conducting face-to-face interviews and involving respondents from various law enforcement departments, could further enhance the depth and accuracy of the findings. Furthermore, it is crucial to note that our study exclusively focused on U.S. respondents. Due to variations in criminal justice systems across different countries, the results may not be applicable to other nations. Future studies should undertake the task of examining and comparing perceptions related to wrongful convictions and the necessity for criminal justice reform in neighboring countries and Europe, thus broadening the understanding of this issue on a global scale.

Implications

The study findings provide valuable insights for policymakers and advocates who seek to enact reforms aimed at addressing issues related to wrongful convictions, racial disparities, and other concerns highlighted in the study, reinforcing the importance of efforts to reduce wrongful convictions and make the criminal justice system more just, equitable, and effective.

First, the study’s findings emphasize broad-based public support for criminal justice reform, suggesting that there is a receptive audience for reforms that aim to improve the fairness and effectiveness of the criminal justice system. The identification of specific reform directions provides policymakers and stakeholders with valuable guidance on where to focus their efforts and what areas of public concern should be prioritized in the reform initiatives.

Second, the study’s identification of race and ethnicity-based issues as significant factors in perceptions of wrongful convictions underscores the need for greater attention to issues of racial equity and fairness within the criminal justice system. Policymakers and practitioners should consider these findings when crafting policies and practices that aim to reduce racial disparities in the system. Third, the findings have implications for post-exoneration services and reintegration programs. The respondent’s recognition of the challenges faced by wrongfully convicted individuals and the victims’ right to compensation and support highlights the importance of providing comprehensive support to exonerees as they attempt to rebuild their lives and the possibility that the public will be willing to support such services.

Third, the study’s findings also suggest that public engagement and awareness campaigns related to wrongful convictions and criminal justice reform can be effective and that there is significant public interest and concern in these issues. As public awareness and support for such efforts grow, policymakers and practitioners may be more motivated to implement changes that reduce the likelihood of innocent individuals being wrongfully convicted. Policymakers and researchers can use public perceptions as a benchmark for assessing the effectiveness of reforms and whether they align with public expectations.

Finally, the disparities in perceptions between the general public and law enforcement professionals regarding wrongful convictions are noteworthy. While the general public tends to exhibit a greater awareness of the prevalence of wrongful convictions and may hold stronger beliefs in the need for reforms within the criminal justice system, law enforcement professionals may have a more nuanced perspective, possibly influenced by their firsthand experience within the system. This contrast in viewpoints highlights the importance of understanding how different stakeholder groups perceive and interpret issues related to wrongful convictions. Such knowledge is crucial for fostering productive dialogue and collaboration between the public and law enforcement agencies. It can aid in the development of more effective policies, procedures, and training initiatives within the criminal justice system, ultimately contributing to the prevention of wrongful convictions and the enhancement of public trust and confidence in the justice system as a whole.

Funding Information This study was self-funded.

Compliance with Ethical Standards All procedures performed in this study involving human participants followed the ethical standards of the Institutional Board Review (IRB) Committee of the authors’ university and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Conflict of Interest The author declares that they have no conflict of interest.

Informed Consent Before the participation, consent was taken from each participant to participate in the study.

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Appendix

The main themes from perceptions towards wrongful convictions from general public respondents.

Main theme

Responses

Race/ethnicity-based issue

“They're a disgusting product of systematic and systemic racism and/prejudice.”

“Shameful, racist, deplorable, unwarranted, selfish, politically and/or ambitiously motivated”

“I feel the judicial system is very lopsided when it comes to black young men.”

“Too often the sentence for crimes that Blacks get are harsher than for Whites, even for doing the same thing or worse, not enough clear evidence to convict.”

“It’s difficult because people always have unconscious biases even if they try their hardest to eradicate them. So we are people judging other people and we are limited in our knowledge of the truth.”

“Don't just think that they are guilty just because of the color of their skin. All people commit a crime, not just one or two races.”

“When wrongful convictions do occur, there is almost always a race/ethnicity-based issue.”

“It's disheartening and really gives me a feeling of hopelessness for my fellow Black brothers who I feel are being unfairly treated.”

“Wrongful convictions occur every day especially to black, brown and poor people.”

“I feel they are wrong and mostly affect black and brown people contrast than white.”

“Mainly affects minorities. Breaking up homes and families.”

“It happens too frequently to minorities.”

“I feel the judicial system is very lopsided when it comes to black young men.”

Unfair justice system

“They occur too often and if the defendant has no money to “LAWYER UP,” here comes the jail time because most PD’s don’t GAF and poorly represent. They encourage deal taking because they know what the jury composition will be and you’ll be found guilty anyway and sentenced for damn near forever; innocent or not.”

“Happens too often in our justice system”

“i currently have no faith in the justice system or any of its stakeholders. It is more corrupt today than it ever was. Due to political radicalization, I believe that the country will see an increase in wrongful convictions.”

“I have a cousin who spend 25 years in jail for something he did not do and he spend lots if time in library and found a good lawyers and he was released about 4 years ago”

“Unfair justice!!!”

“Our society needs to make an effort to ensure only the guilty are convicted.”

“Zero trust to the judicial system”

“I think the justice system is a joke, it’s unfair and biased.”

Devastating effect to wrongfully convicted and their families

“Wrongful conviction will disrupts the family”

“Person probably never overcomes the devastation!! Never lives down the stigma, even if released.”

“The impact of the wrongful conviction to victim of it may be comparable to — or even worse than — that of their original victimization.”

“It's destroying families.”

“I feel they are devastating to public safety and can destroy lives.”

“I think people who are wrongfully convicted lose their chance in society.”

“Being labeled and mistreated for many, many years even long after the sentence is over. The reintroduction to society is challenging.”

“They are usually countered with large settlements but you can't buy back time and endured trauma.”

Compensations for wrongful convictions

The victim is never compensated enough for the time to serve and they didn’t do the crime.”

“Wrongful convictions should be compensated.”

“It's very sad because a person has lost so much of their live by decades by the time they situation is over turn.”

“There should be significant compensation to wrongfully convicted people who are eventually proven to be innocent.”

“I feel anyone wrongfully convicted show be entitled to pay and additional benefits.”

The main themes from perceptions towards wrongful convictions from respondents with working experience in law enforcement.

Main theme

Responses

Devastating effect on wrongfully convicted and their families

“I strongly feel that wrongful convictions take a very bad toll on the families and the communities along with those being wrongfully convicted.”

“For those involved, I can imagine they are devastating.”

“They aren't fair to the person or the family of that person. People's lives will never be the same even after a conviction- wrongful or not because that can't ever get that time back they lost.”

“They are terrible for literally everyone.”

“Any wrongful conviction is a travesty that undermines the very fabric of society”

“It destroys the very fabric of our society, country, culture.”

“It has impacted enough people for a complete overhaul of the penal system.”

“They must be devastating for the wrongly convicted and their families. To be sentenced and serve time for something you have not done must be horrible.”

Issues with a judicial system

“We as a society need to be more aware of the issues within our judicial system.”

“I could see a justified distrust of the judicial system.”

“It happens when there is prosecutorial misconduct to win unfair verdicts without valid evidence.”

“Depends whether or not there was police or judicial misconduct.”

“People want to feel safe, they want justice, and the criminal justice system works hard to provide it. I believe sometimes the human element gets caught up in the actual fact finding process.”

Wrongful convictions must be preventable

“We must come to terms with the fact and make right where we have wronged”

“It should be absolutely everyone's goal to ensure they do not happen.”

“They should never happen PERIOD!”

“They are preventable and inexcusable.”

“This is something that should never happen!! Take your time and do a complete investigation.”

Wrongful convictions bring much attention from the media

“Wrongful convictions bring a disproportionate amount of media attention due to their rarity, meaning it's a fantastic story when it does happen, leading to an overestimation of actual occurrence. Nearly all suspected offenders proclaim their innocence regardless of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary (in my experience). Generally, the necessary combined efforts of numerous parties in the criminal justice system, each making independent evaluations of the merits of the case, leads to legitimate convictions.”

The main themes from perceptions towards how wrongful convictions can be reduced from general public respondents.

Main directions for improvement of the legal system

Responses

Justice system

“More fair and equal justice system”

“Reforms in courts system”

“We need to get more conservative judges.”

“Removing, reprimanding, or reporting judges, prosecutors, police, and lawyers influenced by personal ideology or political and financial power, over their obligation to the rule of law.”

“Judges need additional training and regular bench reviews should be conducted.”

“Change the laws”

Legal defense

“Affordable attorneys and not depending on state appointed attorneys”

“Having access to good lawyers. Due to finances the defended will have to use a public defender.”

“Unbiased legal assistance to the underprivileged -- i.e defense attorneys shouldn't encourage the suspects to confess of the crime they did not commit in order to reduce the length or severity of the punishment.”

“Better representation for defendants. Often defendants are given public defenders who are either unknowledgeable and/or overwhelmed and do not present good and wise defenses.”

“Increase in qualified legal defense.”

“Competent legal defense council”

“Smaller caseloads and better pay for defense attorneys”

“Everyone appointed the same legal representation”

Police

“Better policing more focus on innocent till proven guilty.”

“Better training of police in the first place”

“Get rid of the dirty cops”

“Law enforcement should be held accountable for false arrest and conviction”

“We need more honest police and stricter laws for police who fake and lie to build a case.”

“National standards for law enforcement training and performance, elimination of the accusatory interrogation practices.”

“Patient Police.”

“We need to get more conservative judges and more police reform.”

“Police and judge should think of defendant as if he/ she is them or love one while destroying their lives.”

Investigation

“Revise certain procedures/ policies such as having a forensic team/ investigation team be more vigilant in data/ sample collection to prevent wrongfully identifying the suspects”

“Improving how the investigation are conducted”

“Making sure to have all the facts, do the investigation thoroughly”

“More detailed investigations”

“Thoroughly investigations”

Improving diversity in the justice system

“More lawyers, judges, public defenders, law makers, reflected the population of those wrongly convicted. Instead of minorities marching they would become the lawyers, judges, law makers, and public defenders.”

“More Blacks serving jury duty.”

“More minority judges.”

“Removing racist judges.”

“Respect black men instead of fearing them.”

“The lack of diversity is a major problem with the so called justice system.”

“Stop racism.”

“Remove inequality in prosecution.”

“Representation in the criminal justice system. People who look like us. African Americans.”

“Wrongful conviction is racially driven.”

Improving DNA technology

DNA Technology

Improved DNA technology

Reducing DNA backlogs

Creation of technology that speeds up DNA testing.

Better forensics, National DNA database

Jury selection

“More Blacks serving jury duty.”

“Balanced, diverse juries”

“Ethical jury selection. Minority representation.”

“Changing method of jury selection. As a past juror, I notice the people in the selection box not only do not look like those on trial they have never been victims of crime. Have lived all their lives in the suburban counties, then sit to make a decision on a person living an inner city life and presume them guilty; don’t even want to discuss case once in jury room. But I shake them up. I make them discuss the why or why not of a person’s innocence.”

Education of community

“Involve, inform, and educate the community to be familiar with their legal rights and the Innocence program”

“Encourage citizens to be mindful of media influence”

The main themes from perceptions towards how wrongful convictions can be reduced from respondents with working experience in law enforcement.

Main theme

Responses

Investigation

“More detailed investigations”

“Reliance on scientific evidence and testimony over emotional eye witness testimony.

The growing acceptance of evidence-based, science-driven policy and practice in law enforcement”

“Greater research in the areas of empathetic interviewing, double-blind photograph arrays, and electronic (phone/video) surveillance, etc. will continue to add to the efficacy investigations.”

“with improved DNA technology the wait time for results would reduce the risk of someone being incarcerated.”

“Use of technology is a think a huge factor. Between being about to track cellphones record, the increase number of cameras on buildings, homes, in cars, and just in people's hands. Of course, the improved DNA technology is also very helpful for the process.”

Justice system

“Unbiased judges”

“Society has changed to acknowledge some of the wrongs and bias of the past. Standards have been raised on hiring ethical, moral police officers who are the entry point of arrests and prosecutions in the criminal justice system”

“most can be avoided with a better justice system, holding authorities accountable to their decisions and actions”

“better jury instruction”

Training for law enforcement

“Training in diversity and ethics would help reduce wrongful convictions.”

“More training for law enforcement, interview and interrogation training, evidence collection training, court preparation training”

“Training of systematic bias”

Police

“Police dispositions assessments”

“Strict policies regarding the use of police line ups.”

“More dedicated honest and compassionate officers and lawyers and politicians”

Prosecutor

“More due diligence on behalf of the prosecutor”

“Addressing prosecutor's misconduct”

Defense attorney

“The reduction of caseloads for public defenders would greatly reduce the occurrence of wrongful convictions.”

“Better defense attorneys. Maybe additional resources in systems that are so overwhelmed they can't properly try and defend each case.”

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