Study Finds Wrongful Convictions Rampant in California

Study Finds Wrongful Convictions Rampant in California March 10, 2016

A study of more than two decades of criminal cases in California by three groups that work to exonerate the innocent finds evidence of almost 700 wrongful convictions resulting in almost 3000 total years in prison and nearly $300 million in costs to the state.

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The Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP), the California Innocence Project (CIP) and Loyola’s Project for the Innocent (LPI) welcome today’s release of Criminal (In)justice: A Cost Analysis of Wrongful Convictions, Errors and Failed Prosecutions in California’s Criminal Justice System by Rebecca Silbert, John Hollway, and Darya Larizadeh. This groundbreaking study found 692 faulty convictions in California between 1989 and 2012, resulting in 2,346 total years of wrongful imprisonment and more than $282 million in wasted costs. While attempting to quantify the impact of faulty conviction, the report notes that the human costs of faulty conviction are immeasurable.

Eight categories of error—including eyewitness misidentification, official misconduct and ineffective assistance of counsel—are highlighted in the study, which also emphasizes the need for statewide policies to address the causes of error. The study recommends, among other solutions, evidence-based eyewitness identification practices, noting the solid research in support of such practices. The study also notes the opportunity California has to implement policy reforms that build on the consensus represented by the 2008 California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice (Commission) recommendations.

NCIP agrees. “For close to a decade, we have had a detailed road map available for effective criminal justice reforms in the form of the 2008 recommendations from the Commission. But as those reforms have not been adopted or implemented, faulty convictions continue to take place and errors continue to be made,” says NCIP Executive Director Hadar Harris. “This important new study shows that, as a result, the State of California has wasted millions of dollars in taxpayer funds and destroyed decades of innocent peoples’ lives.”

The study was not limited to cases in which a claim of innocence was made; the authors noted that California’s uniquely difficult standard for proving actual innocence would restrict the evaluation’s parameters too much. Instead, the evaluation included all felony convictions that were reversed in the time period and in which charges were subsequently dismissed or the defendant acquitted.

“This study shows how pervasive the causes of wrongful convictions can be, and how some simple, commonsense reforms would both save taxpayers money and strengthen our system to make sure innocent people do not go to prison,” said Justin Brooks, Executive Director of the California Innocence Project. “The conclusions and recommendations found here should not be read as a criticism of current practices, but rather a way to open an earnest dialogue concerning the long-term effects of wrongful convictions and how to change things for the better.”

NCIP, CIP and LPI actively support criminal justice system reforms that rectify and prevent wrongful convictions. Reform efforts include statewide implementation of evidence-based eyewitness identification practices and mandatory videotaping of custodial interrogations.

“There are some very real costs to wrongful convictions. Of course, the most significant costs are to the individuals whose cases are not handled fairly by the judicial system. But there are also costs to the public and criminal justice system itself,” said Laurie Levenson, who holds the David W. Burcham Chair in Ethical Advocacy at Loyola Law School. “Everyone profits when the police, prosecutors and defense lawyers act zealously and honestly to ensure that a defendant’s rights are protected. Loyola’s Project for the Innocent is dedicated to rectifying wrongful convictions and preventing future injustices.”

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Our criminal (in)justice system is broken from top to bottom and needs to be torn down and rebuilt with justice as the top priority. You can read the full study here.

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