In the case of most exonerations, we can estimate the economic cost of the wrongful incarceration on the exoneree.  This can include lost wages and lack of future earning potential due to imprisonment.  But has anyone ever thought about the economic impact on the state?  Now, someone has.

A joint project of Hollway Advisory Services, a research and consulting firm, and The Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at University of California Berkeley School of Law, the California Wrongful Convictions Project, has issued a preliminary report finding that California has had at least 200 wrongful convictions since 1989 and has cost the taxpayers $129 million.  The project’s long-term objective is to identify wrongful convictions in California and to quantify their economic impact.  The project’s director, Rebecca Silbert, says that “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.”  For California and its ongoing fiscal budget crisis, the data is especially important to find out where taxpayer money may have been wasted.

The data is wide ranging and is based on state and federal criminal convictions in California that are dismissed or overturned and result in acquittal, as well as cases where official misconduct resulted in civil damages.  The project defines wrongful convictions as 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.  The cases came from the National Registry of Exonerations (120), Los Angeles’ Rampart scandal from the late 1990s (53), and other public sources (41).

The report also offers details statistics on the wrongful conviction cases cited.  The project found the causes of the wrongful convictions to be official misconduct (39%), perjury or false accusations (42%), mistaken eyewitness identification (26%), and inadequate or ineffective defense counsel (19%).   Interestingly, only 6% of the wrongful convictions were reversed due to DNA evidence.  The crimes that wrongfully convicted persons were most often convicted of were Murder or Manslaughter (42%) with Child Sex Abuse second (17%).

The project’s estimated cost to the state includes the direct costs of incarceration in state or federal prison and publicly disclosed costs of civil settlement and compensation.  Incarceration costs were calculated conservatively.  If the date of release was unknown, the date on which the court overturned the conviction was used despite the fact that most individuals spend additional time in custody following the court order, but prior to release.  Cost figures do not yet include either costs of representation or the costs incurred to hold these individuals in county jail in addition to state prison; these additional costs are expected to be substantial.  Also not included are indirect costs such as lost wages, impact to family members, and loss of faith in the criminal justice system.  Based on these factors, the cost is $129 million which rises to $144 million when prison costs are adjusted for inflation.

Why is the financial impact so important to know?  One reason may be to spur the legislature to implement reforms to the fix the flaws in the criminal justice system.  The fact that wrongfully convicted persons spent a total 1,313 years in prison may, believe it or not, fail to be persuasive enough to influence lawmakers.  However, lawmakers are always sensitive to where money is spent unwisely.  While many critics may point to the per-year cost as relatively low, any dollar spent on a wrongful conviction is a wasted dollar.  Resources need to be allocated wisely especially in a state like California where budget cutbacks to public safety agencies is a constant worry.  Money spent on a wrongful conviction is money not spent on finding the actual perpetrator.

The project will continue to collect data and issue a final, detailed report in 2013.  That report 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 be interesting to see how high much higher the cost will turn out to be.

To read more about the report, go to http://www.law.berkeley.edu/cawrongfulconviction.htm.