Understanding Public Views of Wrongful Conviction Frequency and Government Responsibility for Compensation: Results From a National Sample

AuthorJordan Nowotny,Amy Shlosberg,Thomas McAndrew
Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2023, Vol. 34(2) 140 –160
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/08874034221106747
Understanding Public Views
of Wrongful Conviction
Frequency and Government
Responsibility for
Compensation: Results From
a National Sample
Jordan Nowotny1, Amy Shlosberg1,
and Thomas McAndrew2
Wrongful convictions are an indicator of the flaws of the American justice system
and represent the consequences of disproportionate crime control policies. To date,
few scholars have documented how the public views wrongful conviction frequency
or who is responsible for these miscarriages of justice. In this study, we draw on
a national sample to examine public perceptions of the prevalence of wrongful
convictions and the degree to which the public believes the government is responsible
for compensation after a wrongful conviction. Our results demonstrate that most
Americans believe felony wrongful convictions happen at least occasionally and that
the government should provide compensation to exonerees. These findings are not
consistent across groups. Race, political affiliation, gender, and age are significantly
related to differences in views of wrongful conviction frequency. Likewise, age and
political affiliation are significantly related to differences in support of government
compensation. Limitations and future directions are also discussed.
wrongful conviction, public attitudes, crime policy, miscarriages of justice,
1Fairleigh Dickinson University, Madison, NJ, USA
2Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jordan Nowotny, Criminology and Criminal Justice Department, Fairleigh Dickinson University College
at Florham, 285 Madison Avenue, M-MS3-02, Madison, NJ 07940, USA.
Email: nowotny@fdu.edu
1106747CJPXXX10.1177/08874034221106747Criminal Justice Policy ReviewNowotny et al.
Nowotny et al. 141
The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world with
more than 2.1 million people detained in prisons or jails. When including other forms
of community supervision, this number approaches 7 million (Maruschak & Minton,
2020). As of April 2022, the National Registry of Exonerations (NRE), the largest
database of exonerated cases has recorded 3,049 exonerations since 1989. However,
the actual number of wrongfully convicted people is most certainly higher. Scholarly
estimates of the prevalence of wrongful conviction typically range from 0.5% to 5%
(e.g., Gould & Leo, 2010; Gross et al., 2014; Gross & O’Brien, 2008; Huff et al., 1986;
Ramsey & Frank, 2007; Risinger, 2007; Zalman et al., 2008, 2012).
In addition to the unknown incidence of wrongful convictions and exonerations,
the actual definitions are debated in the literature. In this paper, we adopt the definition
used by the NRE, which states that
a person has been exonerated if he or she was convicted of a crime and, following a post-
conviction re-examination of the evidence in the case, was either: (1) declared to be
factually innocent by a government official or agency with the authority to make that
declaration; or (2) relieved of all the consequences of the criminal conviction by a
government official or body with the authority to take that action. (https://www.law.
Social science research similarly classifies a wrongful conviction as occurring
when an individual is found guilty of a crime but later exonerated due to new evidence
of innocence that is found and a person is either pardoned or a court sets aside the
conviction (Redlich et al., 2014). However, critics argue that although a person may be
“wrongfully convicted” that does not equate to “actual innocence,” particularly in
cases that lack DNA evidence. The argument here rests on the notion that some indi-
viduals may have had charges dropped due to procedural errors, thus making them
legally innocent but not necessarily truly innocent.
Altogether, the rate of wrongful conviction is important not only because innocent
people are punished for crimes they did not commit but also because these cases erode
public confidence in the criminal justice system and reduce trust in the rule of law
(Gould & Leo, 2010). As stated by Zalman et al. (2012, p. 51) “no problem challenges
the legitimacy of the criminal justice system more than the conviction of factually
innocent individuals.”
The public directly and indirectly influences the administration of justice; citizens
report crimes, provide evidence to the police, serve as jury members or witnesses, and
assist with maintaining social order. Public opinion is also critical in democracies
where citizens vote for and elect officials who represent their interests and enact vari-
ous policies and practices (e.g., Boswell & Smith, 2017; Burstein, 2003; Korzi, 2000;
Sharp, 1999). If the public believes wrongful convictions are common, they may doubt
the effectiveness and integrity of the system, which in turn, may undermine the pro-
cess of criminal justice (Ramsey & Frank, 2007). Community members who are not
confident in, or who mistrust, the justice system are less likely to obey the law (Tyler,
2006), cooperate with law enforcement or other criminal justice officials (Tyler, 2005),

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