A new research group finds that at least 200 wrongful convictions have been thrown out since 1989 in California, costing those convicted more than 1,300 years of freedom and taxpayers $129 million.
The California Wrongful Convictions Project, launched by U, Berkeley, School of Law (Berkeley Law) and Hollway Advisory Services, a criminal justice research firm, announced these findings in preliminary data released recently
The project’s long-term objective is to identify wrongful convictions in California and to quantify their economic impact. The project has defined wrongful convictions to include those where all counts are dismissed by the court or by the prosecutor after conviction, as well as those where the conviction was reversed and the individual was completely acquitted on retrial.
In addition to the costs to individuals and their families of life lost behind bars, the direct costs of incarceration and compensation calculated so far total $129 million ($144 million when prison costs are adjusted for inflation).
This figure does not yet include the costs of legal representation and court proceedings necessary to overturn the convictions, an amount expected to be substantial given the multiple trials and years of appeals routinely undertaken by wrongfully convicted individuals.
A detailed report to be released in 2013 will include the full costs of legal representation, court proceedings, and appeals, as well as costs related to confirmed misconduct by prosecutors, government investigators or police. It will also track the reasons why convictions are overturned.
“The project’s final analysis will include the time, money and resources wasted on all cases that were overturned and dismissed due to misconduct and legal errors, including those where innocent people are wrongfully charged,” said Rebecca Silbert, a project director and senior associate at Berkeley Law’s Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy. “We know that there are errors in the system; what has been missing until now is a precise analysis of the financial impact on California.”
Preliminary findings reveal that California leads the nation in exonerations as defined by the National Registry of Exonerations with 120, surpassing Illinois (110), Texas (100), and New York (100). The National Registry requires a post-conviction showing of new evidence for inclusion;
Since 1989, courts have exonerated or dismissed convictions against 214 Californians. Reasons include official misconduct, insufficient evidence, findings of innocence, ineffective defense, and legal error;
The vast majority of these wrongfully convicted individuals served time in state or federal prison before their convictions were thrown out, collectively losing 1,313 years of their freedom;
40 percent of individuals in the dataset were initially sentenced to 20 years or more in prison, including many who received life, life without parole, or death sentences before their convictions were overturned;