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March 9, 2016

"Criminal Injustice: A Cost Analysis of Wrongful Convictions, Errors, and Failed Prosecutions in California's Criminal Justice System"

The title of this post is the title of this new report recently published by The Opportunity Institute.  Here is the report's executive summary:

Criminal (In)justice examines 692 individuals who were prosecuted and convicted in California state or federal courts, only to have their convictions dismissed because the government prosecuted the wrong person, because the evidence was lacking, or because the police, defense, prosecutors, or court erred to such a degree that the conviction could not be sustained.  The 692 individuals subjected to these failed prosecutions spent a total of 2,346 years in custody, and their prosecutions, appeals, incarceration, and lawsuits cost California taxpayers an estimated $282 million when adjusted for inflation.  Eighty-five of these cases arose from a large group exoneration — the Rampart police corruption scandal — and are discussed separately in a later section of this report.

The remaining 607 convictions, all of which were reversed between 1989 and 2012, illuminate a dark corner in California’s criminal justice system.  These 607 individuals spent a total of 2,186 years in custody.  They burdened the system with 483 jury trials, 26 mistrials, 16 hung juries, 168 plea bargains, and over 700 appeals and habeas petitions. Many of the individuals subjected to these flawed prosecutions filed lawsuits and received settlements as a result of the error, adding to the taxpayer cost.  Altogether, we estimate that these 607 faulty convictions cost taxpayers $221 million for prosecution, incarceration and settlement, adjusted for inflation. This estimate is only a window onto the landscape of possible costs, as it does not include the often unknowable costs suffered by those subjected to these prosecutions.

The sections below provide a review of these 607 cases and offer some recommendations for change.

The first section, Characteristics of Injustice, paints a collective picture of the cases in our sample. Compared to California’s average, the individuals subjected to these errors were disproportionately prosecuted for violent crimes, especially homicide. This may be because prosecutions for violent crime are more likely to generate error than prosecutions for other crimes, though that question was beyond the scope of our research. Whatever the reason, failed prosecutions for violent crime account for a greater percentage of the wasted $221 million than failed prosecutions for other crimes. Indeed, flawed homicide convictions alone account for 52% of the $221 million, in part because these homicide cases took an average of 11 years to resolve and generated more lawsuits and civil settlements.

The second section, Causes of Injustice, catalogs the multitude of errors, dividing them into eight categories: eyewitness identification errors, prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective defense counsel, judicial mistake during trial, Fourth Amendment search and seizure violations, inadequate police practices before trial, unreliable or untruthful official testimony (officer or informant), and failure of prosecutorial discretion.

Prosecutorial misconduct and eyewitness identification were the most common errors in the flawed homicide prosecutions. When broken down by type of error, prosecutorial misconduct accounted for more of the cost in our sample than any other type of error.  By contrast, the most common errors in our sample were Fourth Amendment search and seizure errors, and judicial mistake.  These errors were resolved relatively quickly, however, and resulted in relatively little cost.

The third section, Costs of Injustice, walks through the cost analysis.  It documents the many hurdles raised by the California Victims Compensation and Government Claims Board.  This section also identifies many of the additional costs not captured by our methodology, including costs arising from wrongful misdemeanor convictions, flawed juvenile convictions, and cases that resolved prior to conviction, among others.  These unaccounted costs highlight the fact that this report documents only a portion of the vast unknown waste in California’s criminal justice system — but it is at least a beginning.

Criminal (In)justice ends with a section on Next Steps and Recommendations.  The problems presented in this report are undoubtedly complex, and each of them individually could be subject to its own investigation.  This report does not attempt to comprehensively define the universe of best practices that will solve all of the issues raised.  Instead, it identifies promising avenues for reform and highlights practices and jurisdictions that are leading the way. In particular, in 2006 the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice issued a report containing detailed recommendations regarding eyewitness identification, false confessions, informant testimony, problems with scientific evidence, and accountability for prosecutors and defense attorneys.  The recommendations represent the unanimous views of a diverse group of prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, law enforcement, and other stakeholders.  To date, however, many of the substantive reforms have not been adopted, compromising public safety and leaving our criminal justice system at risk of endlessly repeating the errors catalogued here. (The report can be found at www.ccfaj.org.)

March 9, 2016 at 09:02 AM | Permalink


Some of these guys actually did it, of course. And some of the judicial overturning was probably wrong too.

Not saying that there aren't issues here--but let's have some balance.

Posted by: federalist | Mar 9, 2016 9:21:31 AM

"The recommendations represent the unanimous views of a diverse group of prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, law enforcement, and other stakeholders."

Perhaps the authors can explain how they can say unanimous when the CCFAJ report itself has numerous letters in the report indicating disagreement with some of the findings and recommendations, including then Attorney General Jerry Brown. If they can't tell the the truth in the Execute Summary, why should I read the rest?

There is a reason the recommendation in the report have gained little traction in California.

Posted by: David | Mar 9, 2016 10:27:07 AM

This is not a rare situation. As an attorney I`ve seen many people get away with crimes committed because of police or prosecutor errors. They don`t everything by the protocol and it ends up like this.

Posted by: Tom Peters | Mar 9, 2016 10:40:47 AM

What`s worse is that police and prosecution constantly makes these errors, even pressures cases where they know they don`t stand a chance because of their error just to cover themselves.

Posted by: Tom Peters | Mar 9, 2016 10:42:36 AM

@David, they clearly mean the commissioners were unanimous. Because grammar.

@federalist, if some of them were guilty then there are even bigger issues since government error failed to secure justice for victims and may have even resulted in payouts to offenders. The point seems to me to be to reduce government error and misconduct. Is that somehow a problem?

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Mar 9, 2016 6:31:54 PM

grits, your post shows an inability to read. My point about some being guilty was for balance---nothing in my post suggests that misconduct is ok.

Stop being so tendentious.

Posted by: federalist | Mar 11, 2016 9:55:37 PM

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