The Numbers are Astounding
The National Registry of Exonerations—a joint project of the University of California/Irvine Newkirk Center for Science & Society, the University of Michigan Law School, and the Michigan State University College of Law—near the end of 2019 included a total of 2,515 individuals who lost a combined 21,000 years of their lives due to wrongful convictions, and these numbers are growing all the time. The compensation paid to these people is sometimes in the millions, with the total estimated to stand at over $2 billion.
Costs to Society
One of the most obvious costs to society is the financial burden of the aforementioned payouts to victims of wrongful convictions. In some instances, residents in some parts of the nation face hefty property tax increases due to jury awards to the wrongly imprisoned. If that money was to come from the pockets of prosecutors, judges, and police officers as it rightfully should when their wrongdoing caused the incarceration, the number of wrongful convictions would likely plummet.
Keep in mind the financial compensation to victims fails to capture the additional costs of wrongfully prosecuting and incarcerating thousands of innocent people—costs that are borne once again by taxpayers. Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia have statutory provisions to provide compensation to exonerees as of May 2019, when Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb signed a law that grants $50,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment in that state—the most recent addition to the list. Several states have run into financial shortfalls for compensating the wrongfully convicted, including Michigan, where exonerees faced long waits when the state’s compensation fund was exhausted. Payments in Illinois were likewise delayed as the legislature debated the state’s budget, which gives the phrase “justice delayed is justice denied” a whole new meaning.
Another cost to society is that convicting and incarcerating the wrong person means that the real perpetrator is oftentimes still free, so additional harm or crimes—physical, financial, or otherwise—can be inflicted on more people. There’s also the potential duplicative cost to prosecute the perpetrator and the person who was wrongfully convicted in the first place. Then, of course, litigation costs incurred while undoing the damage done by the system can be yet another societal expense.
Indirect costs must also be considered. Such costs manifest in many different ways. Some include the system’s parasitic feeder entities. Counselors, psychiatrists, halfway houses, and other entities are sometimes paid or subsidized by the government or, at the very least, benefit by the government’s actions. Indigent victims or those with physical or mental disabilities may require “services” from one or more of these feeders because of the trauma suffered while being incarcerated.
Costs to Families
Possibly not given the attention it deserves, the effects upon the families of the wrongly imprisoned must be considered. When a parent with children is incarcerated, the children now lack that mother or father figure in their lives. The impact could be enormous. Some children may resort to drugs, alcohol, or other sociological vices and experience depression or other negative emotions. Some may even be more prone to attack by the system because of the parent being jailed and them being perceived as “like father, like son,” for example.
Of course, there is the obvious hit to families when the person who is imprisoned is the main income source for the family. Those left behind may struggle to make ends meet and lose their standard of living, their health, and even their home as a result. The entirety of indirect costs is difficult to quantify. Such costs may only be relevant for certain families. For instance, families without a sizeable nest egg and who are living paycheck to paycheck would be heavily impacted when the income stream is shut off.
Sociological stigmatization of family members is also possible. In poorer neighborhoods where people are sometimes unjustly ripped from their homes to serve time for crimes they did not commit, the effects may be minimal. But in middle and upper class neighborhoods where people are wrongly convicted, the costs to the family can be far greater. In communities where such a thing might be rarer by contrast, people might consciously or subconsciously shun families of the victims.
Costs to the Victims
Perhaps the most significant cost of wrongful convictions is to the victims themselves. These unfortunate people suffer the greatest injustice. They have lost years, sometimes decades, of their lives. Some have even died, been murdered, or been executed in prison. Can society actually place a price tag on this?
They have also lost a means of generating income. Some are yanked from their jobs only to find when they are freed that the job at which they were working is no longer available or that they are looked upon as “the criminal who eventually beat the rap.” Being accepted by society can be quite difficult, particularly since those who have not yet been victimized by the legal system still mistakenly believe it is real. Finding work can also be a daunting hurdle to overcome for former inmates.
Some victims suffer from PTSD for an extended time, even after release. Some never fully recover. And it’s not just PTSD. The mental impact may not be easily quantifiable. In some cases, it can be rather subtle; in others it could border on insanity or suicidal tendencies. Certainly, it is doubtful that any innocent person escapes imprisonment completely free of any physical or psychological scarring.
For younger victims, the education of many has either been abruptly terminated or prevented. Getting postsecondary education may present challenges of its own for the same reasons as an adult trying to find work. Learning ability may be negatively impacted because of lingering trauma to the mind and result in longer graduation times or even academic failure.
Many people who have suffered injustices at the hands of the system may understandably harbor hatred towards it. Ramifications of such emotions may impact several facets of a person’s life. Hatred’s side-effects may include physical isolation from others, an attitude of revenge towards the system, or other unrecognized conditions.
Many thousands of people have served time or are in prison today for crimes they did not commit while the real criminals remain free. And for the few who get exonerated, it’s unlikely that their lives just go back to normal. Those who are eventually freed may have lost large parts of their lives—their youth, the childhood of their children, the last years of their parents’ lives, their careers, their belongings, their marriages, and more. False convictions wreak havoc on many aspects of our economy, our welfare, and our citizens.
Our dysfunctional, corrupt system is far from perfect. There are many causes for why it is in the horrid state that it is in today. Racial bias, poverty, politics, power, money, and other factors all play a role. We must hold as one of our top priorities freeing people from behind bars who do not belong there. More importantly, we have to prevent other innocent people from ever being put there. The only two known resources that are available to all Americans and that achieve this objective are You Have the Right to Remain Innocent and Stack the Legal Odds in Your Favor.