BY SANA FAROOQUEE
“[It’s] better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” –William Blackstone (English Jurist)
Clarence Elkins’ life was turned upside down when he was sentenced to 15 years to life for murder, ten years of attempted aggravated murder, ten years for one count of rape, and two life sentences for the rape of a young girl, in 1999. He would not be eligible for parole until he turned 91, and each sentence would be served successively.
Elkins’ wife, Melinda, lost her husband, her mother, and her family all in one night. The turmoil that awaited them was a perfect example of what thousands of wrongfully convicted men have gone through due to the government’s “tough on crime” policies.
Clarence Elkins was charged with the murder of his mother-in-law and rape of his 6-year-old niece. He, like many Americans, put faith in the system, consciously believing justice would be served. Elkins fully complied with police procedures and reassured his family that he would soon come home. Little did he know that this ordeal would cost him years of his life, his faith, and ultimately his marriage.
Evidence against Elkins was minimal, if at all. There was no DNA connecting him to the rape or murder. He had been with his friends and his wife that night. The times clearly conflicted; Elkins would have had to drive an hour to the crime scene, commit the crime, drive an hour back and then come safely to bed. He would also have to sterilize the room of his DNA, which would have been impossible in a rape crime. The entire case was based on the eyewitness testimony of the six-year-old rape victim. She had initially stated that she was “unsure,” however, after being suggested that it was her uncle, she did what any six year old would do; she listened to what the policemen told her.
Melinda Elkins lost her whole family for standing by her husband throughout the trial. Her niece and sister cut off contact and this miscarriage of justice left a family torn. Melinda had to raise her two sons alone.
As tragic as this story sounds, it is becoming a harsher reality: American prisons are convicting hundreds of innocent people each year. Ronald Huff, the Dean of UC Irvine’s School of Social Ecology, estimates 1-3% of felony cases in the U.S. are wrongfully convicted each year. Although this may seem like a small percentage, with millions of people incarcerated in correctional facilities, the numbers add up drastically. As we continue to build more prisons and pass tougher crime policies, such as the Three Strikes Law, the problem is merely exacerbated.
According to the Innocence Project -a non-profit group committed to releasing innocent prisoners- in 2005, it was proven that Elkins was wrongfully convicted. Only after DNA testing and a tough battle was he finally exonerated, but no one can return the countless years he lost.
The allocation of endless amounts of resources towards incarceration sends a strong message about the priorities of the U.S. government and judicial system. In a 2008 study published by the Pew Center on the States, it was found that the U.S. spends six times more on prisons than on education. Since the mid-1980s the California State has built 22 new state prisons, with just one new state college -all of which feeds into what many have called “the prison economy.” With close to $50 billion spent on incarceration every year by state governments, the prison-industrial complex relies on the growing influx of prisoners. In a 2002 study conducted by the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, it was found that 52 percent of inmates released were back in jail by three years.
The emphasis placed on building prisons and the increase of incarcerations may be a major factor in the miscarriage of justice by the legal system. Students, and others in the education system, are also victims of a miscarriage of injustice, one that denies the advancement of education because of the allocation of extensive funds and resources to the prison system.
Today, it costs an average of more than $23,000 to place an individual in jail, while it only takes about $9,000 to educate a child. In light of budget deficits and the 2008 fiscal crisis, it only makes sense to pursue the latter: To place importance on education and preventing students from going down the road of incarceration.
As Victor Hugo once said, “he who opens a school, closes a prison.”
SANA FAROOQUEE is an alumna of UC Irvine