Foon Rhee

The Numbers Crunch: Injustice comes at a high price for taxpayers, too

Larry Pohlschneider poses with attorney Mastery Badami after his first haircut following his exoneration and release from prison last October. He served nearly 15 years of a 24-year sentence for child molestation.
Larry Pohlschneider poses with attorney Mastery Badami after his first haircut following his exoneration and release from prison last October. He served nearly 15 years of a 24-year sentence for child molestation. hamezcua@sacbee.com

It’s impossible to calculate the cost of lost freedom. How do you place a value on all the time missed with family and friends while in prison for a crime you didn’t commit?

But a first-of-its kind study tries to compute the dollars-and-cents price of injustice to California taxpayers.

Released Wednesday, the analysis says mistakes in the state’s criminal justice system cost Californians at least $221 million (adjusted for inflation) from 1989 through 2012.

That represents the grand total of incarceration expenses ($80 million), trial and appeal costs ($68 million), legal settlements ($68 million) and state compensation for wrongful imprisonment ($5 million) for 607 people who had their felony convictions overturned, then were acquitted in retrials or had their charges dismissed. The total cost rises to $282 million when the 85 exonerations in the Rampart police corruption scandal in Los Angeles are added.

“We should be aiming for zero errors in our criminal justice system,” Rebecca Silbert, who co-authored the study while at UC Berkeley law school, said in a statement. “The costs are too high to ignore.”

Among the key findings of Silbert and co-author John Hollway of the University of Pennsylvania law school:

▪ Errors in homicides accounted for 52 percent of the costs, an average of nearly $1.3 million per case.

▪ Mistakes were disproportionately made in violent crimes – 30 percent, compared with 20 percent of all convictions. The researchers say that could be because there’s more emotion involved and more pressure to convict.

▪ The most costly mistakes were prosecutors’ misconduct, such as failing to turn over evidence to the defense ($53 million), followed by judicial error during trial ($32 million), eyewitness misidentification ($31 million) and ineffective defense lawyers ($27 million).

▪ The 607 people spent nearly 2,200 years combined behind bars, nearly 1 in 5 were sentenced to life in prison and more than half were 35 or younger when convicted.

The wait for justice was even longer for the record 149 people exonerated across America last year. They had served an average of 14 ½ years in prison, and their cases included 58 homicides. Five exonerations were in California, which accounts for 158 of the 1,740 cases nationwide since 1989.

The new study points out that a decade ago, a state commission on fair justice issued recommendations to reduce wrongful convictions, including those caused by mistaken identifications, false confessions, perjured testimony, inaccurate scientific evidence, prosecutorial misconduct and inadequate funding for public defenders.

But very few of the recommendations have been enacted statewide. In 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that bars convictions based solely on the uncorroborated testimony of jailhouse informants, who are often unreliable.

It’s been clear for years that more should be done to prevent these unjust prosecutions, which punish the innocent and let the guilty go free.

If legislators won’t respond to the pleas of the exonerated, maybe angry taxpayers will get their attention.

By the numbers

The number of wrongful arrests and convictions and legal settlements and fees for selected cities and counties, 1989-2012:

  • El Dorado County: 21, $570,000
  • Fresno County: 22, $3.4 million
  • Los Angeles: 370, $93.3 million
  • Los Angeles County: 99, $29.5 million
  • Merced County: 23, $445,000
  • Oakland: 364, $49.5 million
  • Placer County: 14, $357,000
  • Sacramento: 39, $482,000
  • Sacramento County: 193, $7.7 million
  • San Francisco: 97, $12.6 million
  • San Joaquin County: 8, $477,000
  • Stockton: 45, $1.5 million

Source: Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy, UC Berkeley

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