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Bad convictions have cost California millions of dollars, report says

A study of more than 600 overturned felony convictions in California calculates the cost of those botched cases to taxpayers at more than $220 million over two decades.

The effort to put a price on prosecutorial misconduct, errant judicial rulings and forensic lab mistakes was undertaken by the Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at UC Berkeley and the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania.

Incarceration costs for individuals who were set free after their convictions were overturned added up to $80 million, the study found. Lawsuit settlements in wrongful conviction cases were $68 million, and an additional $68 million was spent on trials and appeals, according to the study released this week.

The 692 cases were from 1989 to 2012, and the costs associated with them were adjusted to 2013 values. The study examined cases in which felony convictions were reversed and the defendants were either released or acquitted on retrial. Whether the defendant was guilty or innocent, the study noted, was “unknowable.”

But 85 of the overturned felonies came as a result of the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division scandal of 2000, in which prosecutors sought to dismiss cases because of concerns over officer credibility. The city paid out some $78 million in settlements.

Most errors were in cases involving violent crimes, and 1 out of 5 overturned convictions had resulted in a life sentence. It took an average of eight years for the 92 overturned cases involving murder to be reversed. While judicial mistakes at trial — including improper instructions to juries or rulings on evidence — were the most common causes for reversal, cited in 164 cases, prosecutorial misconduct was found in 86 of the cases.

The number of overturned convictions that the study found is a tiny fraction of the 200,000 or so defendants who are convicted of crimes in California each year. However, the study noted, “We reject the proposition that an acceptable rate of error can apply to proceedings that impact people’s lives in the way that criminal prosecution can.”

For more California corrections news, follow me at @paigestjohn on Twitter

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