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Report Decries Human and Financial Cost of Flawed California Prosecutions

by Derek Gilna

"We ignore flaws with the system at our own peril." Thus do the authors of "Criminal (In)justice: A Cost Analysis of Wrongful Convictions, Errors, and Failed Prosecutions in California's Criminal Justice System," summarize the incalculable financial and human cost of flawed California state criminal prosecutions.

That organization's report, "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 wronged individuals)...served more than two thousand years in prison and jail, at a total cost to California taxpayers of more than $282 million." Covering convictions from 1989 to 2012,  the study noted that these flawed prosecutions "burdened the system with 483 jury trials, 26 mistrials, 16 hung juries, 168 plea bargains, and over 700 appeals and habeas petitions."

First, the report covers "Characteristics of Injustice," discusses the fact most prosecutorial errors were related to violent crimes, rather than drug or property crimes.   That category accounted for "a greater percentage of the wasted $221 million than failed prosecutions for other crimes," with "flawed homicide convictions alone account for 52% of the $221 million."  The report found that these prosecutions took "an average of 11 years to resolve and generated more lawsuits and civil settlement." Almost 20% of the wrongfully convicted had been sentence to life or life without parole.

The second section, "Causes of Injustice," discusses the categories of prosecutorial error, including "eyewitness identification errors, prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective defense counsel, judicial mistakes. Fourth Amendment search and seizure violations, inadequate police practice..., unreliable or untruthful official testimony..., and failure of prosecutorial discretion." The report stated that, "Prosecutorial misconduct fundamentally perverts the course of justice and cost taxpayers millions of dollars in protracted litigation..(and) undermines our trust in the reliability of the justice system and the notion that we are a fair society."

The third section of the report, "Cost of Injustice,"  deals with the monetary costs and concentrates on "the many hurdles raised by the California Victims Compensation and Government Claims Board," leading many wronged individuals to despite their loss, to abandon their claims.

The report sheds light on another systemic cancer infecting the American criminal justice system-law enforcement corruption and misconduct, which they term "Group Exonerations." Specifically, it cites the Rampart police scandal of 2002, where LA police officers falsely arrested and prosecuted generally Latino defendants;  this resulted in

228 wrongfully-accused defendants receiving over $78 million in verdicts and settlements. The Riders police scandal in Oakland resulted in settlements to 119 wrongfully arrested individuals that approached $11 million.  The San Francisco crime lab was also shown to have misused drugs seized as evidence, with one technician at the lab taking some for his personal use. 

The report does make recommendations to correct these errors, including removing absolute prosecutorial immunity, creating a commission on prosecutorial misconduct, adopt the National Academy of Sciences reforms on eyewitness identification, increased funding for public defender programs, and conviction integrity units.

Source: University of Pennsylvania Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 16-12