Jun 24th 2015

Presumed Innocent? The Social Science of Wrongful Conviction (Coursera)

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The United States criminal justice system is typically an accurate and efficient system—although, as a human creation, it is not perfect. This course will employ a social scientific perspective to understand why innocent people are sometimes convicted of crimes they did not commit. In this course we will discuss wrongful convictions, their causes, and their solutions.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of Michigan Law and Northwestern Law, over 1,300 individuals in the United States have been exonerated after being convicted for crimes they did not commit. These are the known cases of wrongful conviction—the actual number is much higher. Some of these individuals have served years, even decades, in prison for these crimes. Often, real offenders have escaped justice as a result of the wrong person being accused and convicted.

As noted, we will approach this topic from a social scientific perspective. Social science is a broad field that seeks to understand social interactions between individuals, groups, and institutions. The field includes academic disciplines such as sociology, criminology, psychology, economics, anthropology, political science, and other related disciplines.

In this course we will explore wrongful convictions answering several key questions:
What do we mean by “wrongfully convicted,” and how common are wrongful convictions?
Who are wrongfully convicted?
Where in the criminal justice system do things go wrong to lead to wrongful convictions?
Why do wrongful convictions occur?
How can social science contribute to understanding, and preventing wrongful convictions?