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

Rebecca Sullivan Silbert, Senior Vice President, Opportunity and Justice Division, The Opportunity Institute
John Hollway, University of Pennsylvania Law School
Darya Larizadeh, San Mateo County Commission on the Status of Women

Berkeley, CA: Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy, 2015


Mistakes, incompetence and malfeasance in our criminal justice system can have serious and lifelong consequences on the person prosecuted, and can compromise the public’s belief in the system. Although much has been examined regarding small sample sets of individuals for whom there is uniform agreement on innocence, thousands of other defendants are subjected to these flawed prosecutions. This report analyzes a dataset of 692 adult felony criminal cases in California, the majority from 2000 – 2012, wherein the defendant was convicted of felony or felonies, the convictions were reversed, and the charges were either dismissed or the defendant subsequently found not guilty on retrial. The individuals in the study 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, adjusted for inflation. The document examines the types of cases susceptible to error, the types of error that exist, and the direct costs of incarceration, representation, and compensation attributable to these cases and their ultimate resolution. In the absence of data relating to the taxpayer costs for trial, the report suggest a methodology to estimate taxpayer costs for cases that proceed to trial and cases that settle prior to trial, grouped by type of crime.