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How Much Do Wrongful Convictions Cost?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

It seems like every day we're hearing news of criminal defendants, some of them on death row awaiting execution, being exonerated by DNA evidence or otherwise having their convictions overturned. Often, they have spent decades in jail, all for crimes they did not commit. Beyond the moral and legal obligations to have a criminal justice system that doesn't incarcerate innocent people, there are financial reasons to make sure only guilty parties are convicted and go to jail.

A recent study found that serious mistakes in California's criminal justice system cost the state (and taxpayers) over $282 million between 1989 and 2012. This total included trials, incarceration expenses, appeals, and compensation for those wrongfully imprisoned in cases where the state failed to prosecute the right person or obtained flawed or unsustainable convictions. These are mistakes that must be avoided at all costs.

The Human Cost

The study, published by the Opportunity Institute, identified 692 adult felony criminal cases in California over the span of 23 years wherein a criminal defendant was convicted of a felony or felonies and the convictions were reversed. In each case, the charges were either dismissed or the defendant subsequently found not guilty on retrial. According to the report, these individuals "endured hundreds of trials, mistrials, appeals, and habeas petitions and served more than two thousand years in prison and jail, all for charges that could not be sustained."

Beyond the lost years and emotional toll of prosecution, trial, and incarceration for the defendants themselves, these cases took the time and effort of law enforcement and prosecutors (misguided or illegal effort in some cases), as well as judges and juries. These wrongful convictions served no public interest, and may have only done further harm to victims and their families.

The Financial Cost

The $282 million includes the direct costs of incarceration, legal representation, and compensation (often lawsuit settlements) attributable to the hundreds of wrongful felony convictions. More than half (52 percent) of the total costs were due to errors in faulty homicide prosecutions, which are already the most expensive criminal charges to pursue.

The study also found that the most costly type of error was prosecutorial misconduct, like failing to turn over evidence that may aid the defense, costing California $53 million -- almost a quarter of the total cost. And almost 20 percent of the faulty convictions carried life sentences, meaning, had they not been overturned, the cost to taxpayers would have been even more severe.

William Blackstone famously said, "It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." Not only is this a morally good idea, but most likely a financially sound one as well.

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