Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Psychological Effects of Being Falsely Accused

By Allison Gamble*

Criminal incarceration is considered a necessary measure in virtually all parts of the civilized world, particularly for western countries such as the United States. Removing individuals from society for crimes committed is supposed to deter future violations, or so the theory goes. However, the benefits to society of prison systems don't apply when the falsely accused fall through the cracks of the judicial process.

In fact, imprisonment is not only a potentially harmful environment in terms of forensic psychology forensic psychology and physical harm for guilty and innocent inmates alike, but it's most definitely damaging to the latter whose relationships in outside society may never fully recover.

Psychological Effects of Imprisonment

Imprisonment is a generally unpleasant experience for all but the most hardened criminals. In addition to constrictive behavioral codes, overcrowding, and the effects of institutionalization, the constant threat of assault can weigh heavily on the minds of those unaccustomed to looking over their shoulders. According to data collected by the US Justice Department, one out of every twenty incarcerated individuals reported being raped in 2007 alone. This rate is immensely higher than in the general population, where thirty out of 100,000 reported being raped in the same year, according to the US census.

Those convicted for certain kinds of crimes, whether rightly or wrongly, are especially likely to face violent prison experiences. Inmate cultures often endorse attacks against pedophiles and other sex offenders. Typically, convicted sex criminals must be kept in isolated confinement for their protection, lest they meet the same fate as Colin Hatch, a thirty-eight-year-old child molester recently murdered by cellmates.

With regard to the wrongfully convicted, the will to maintain one’s innocence in the face of these environmental stresses is difficult enough, but an additional emotional dilemma arises surrounding the prospect of parole. As it stands, virtually all parole boards demand at least some acknowledgment of guilt on the part of prisoners for consideration of a reduced sentence. However, such admissions eliminate the possibility of overturning a conviction, and compel innocent convicts to wrongfully indemnify themselves in hopes of early release.

Daniel Medwed, professor at the University of Utah, sought to explore this situation in detail. To the appreciation of many behind bars, his work has since attracted the attention of both the mainstream news media and criminal judges. Nevertheless, the pressure innocent inmates face to suppress their claims of innocence continue to be vastly underestimated.

Broken Relationships

While the social consequences for the incarcerated may be minor when it comes to petty crimes, they are far worse in the case of wrongful conviction for major crimes. From drug possession to premeditated murder, the ramifications of incarceration for current relationships, including professional ones, are serious indeed.

In fact, not only do convicted felons experience staggeringly higher rates of divorce than the general populace, but they also encounter far less successful professional careers. Given the fact that most employers do check criminal histories and prefer to hire those with clean records, it remains unsurprising that the Federal Government now offers tax incentives to employers willing to hire former inmates. Needless to say, for those who are innocent to begin with, reintegrating into society socially and professionally after prison time is a grim prospect.

On the other hand, those whose convictions are overturned in light of exonerating evidence have more tolerable odds of subsequent success. In such rare cases, the help of local news media and the expunging of criminal records can undo much harm already done and allow for easier reintegration. However, although one would think that most governments would furthermore compensate wrongfully convicted parties for lost time and other harm, unfortunately, this is simply not the case. Merely twenty-seven US states have laws concerning restitution for the wrongfully accused, most of which are either woefully inadequate or systematically flawed. Therefore, even if one’s name is cleared, exoneration is no guarantee of recompense for injustice.

As tough as prison may be for genuine criminals, the experiences of the innocent among them are of a whole different order. Whereas the guilty ultimately face the fact that they sowed the seeds of their imprisonment, the wrongfully accused must grapple with an outcome so unjust and disillusioning that it stands to rob them of any aspirations they may've had. For these reasons the public must keep in mind the potential for harm that exists in the criminal justice system. Just as that system holds the guilty accountable for crimes committed, so can its error force an innocent to pay for the crimes of another.

*Allison Gamble has been a curious student of psychology since high school. She brings her understanding of the mind to work in the weird world of internet marketing with