Criminal (In)justice: A Cost Analysis of Wrongful Convictions, Errors, and Failed Prosecutions in California's Criminal Justice System
Date:  04-08-2016

Flawed convictions caused 692 adults a total of 2,000 years in prison at a cost to taxpayers of $282 billion
From The Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy, Berkeley School of Law, March, 2016


Criminal (In)justice examines 692 adult felony criminal cases where California missed the mark in public safety by failing to prosecute the right person or by pursuing a flawed or unsustainable conviction. The individuals subjected to these faulty proceedings endured hundreds of trials, mistrials, appeals, and habeas petitions and served more than two thousand years in prison and jail, at a total cost to California taxpayers of more than $282 million.

The scope of Criminal (In)justice is, to our knowledge, unprecedented. We began by following the well-trodden path analyzing wrongful convictions and exonerations. As we started to explore the cases, however, we realized that criminal justice errors affect not only those who were convicted and later declared innocent, but also those whose convictions were overturned without a declaration of innocence. We could not ignore the many defendants subjected to years of detention, trials, retrials and incarceration only to have their cases eventually dismissed without a formal finding of innocence, nor could we ignore the victims left unserved when convictions against alleged perpetrators were dismissed due to error. We were also working in California which, unlike many other states, imposes a particularly burdensome process on individuals seeking a judicial declaration of innocence. As a result, innocent individuals in California may rationally choose not to pursue judicial declarations of innocence after their convictions are dismissed, especially if those individuals are indigent. For all of these reasons, we did not have confidence that using “innocence” as a criterion for inclusion would provide a complete picture of those who were not served by our criminal justice system.

In the end, we included every case we could find where:

  • the defendant was convicted of a felony,

  • the conviction was reversed between 1989 and 2012,2 and

  • the charges were subsequently dismissed or the defendant acquitted on retrial.

    We evaluated cases regardless of the reason for reversal, using a methodology specifically designed to avoid the subjective and often unknowable guilt or innocence of the defendant. Our cases came from court records, the National Registry of Exonerations, and other public records. Regardless of source, we relied on court records and we base our conclusions on those actual documents, not on extrapolations and assumptions. As a result, we include over 160 wrongfully convicted individuals from the National Registry, as well as others who may, or may not, be exonerated or “wrongfully convicted” as that term has come to be commonly understood. What cannot be disputed is that each of them was convicted of one or more felonies, that those convictions could not be sustained, and that the errors examined here imposed a substantial cost on both the individuals subjected to them and all California taxpayers.

    Read Criminal (In)justice: A Cost Analysis of Wrongful Convictions, Errors, and Failed Prosecutions in California's Criminal Justice System here.