Wrongful arrests take place every day. Wrongful convictions cost. Civil law in the United States and many countries allow for those wrongfully arrested/convicted to seek monetary damages. What is the cost of wrongful arrests and convictions?
by C J Oakes
What is the Difference Between a Wrongful Arrest and Wrongful Conviction?
Put simply, a wrongful arrest occurs when police place a suspect under arrest for an alleged crime. In most cases, people wrongfully arrested simply let the matter go without seeking recompense. They simply accept the matter as the police making a mistake. At times, police make an arrest and either the police supervisor or District Attorney decline to pursue the charges.
In some cases, the person is actually guilty, but because of a lack of evidence is released. In other cases, such as that which recently took place in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, wrongful arrests of Black Lives Matters protesters was conducted such that civil rights violations occurred. The result was that the Metro Coucil of Baton Rouge settled the case out of court for $100,000. By most standards, the city got off cheap, especially since the civil suit listed 92 defendants.
However, many wrongful arrests continue through the system. If the defendant happens to be poor, the case is fairly doomed to conviction…wrongfully so. The defendant later seeks appeal and if lucky, an organization such as the Innocence Project takes up the case. If not so lucky, the defendant spends much of his/her life in prison for a crime not committed.
The cost to society of wrongful convictions cannot be understated. Just what are these?
What Are the Total Costs to Society of Wrongful Convictions?
The news media has featured numerous headlines showing enormous payments to people who were wrongfully convicted. Consider just a few…
- San Antonio, TX. Four Texas women exonerated after nearly 15 years in prison for sexual assault.
- Philadelphia, PA. Anthony Wright served 25 years in prison for a rape/murder he didn’t commit.
- Shreveport, LA. Glenn Ford spent 30 years on Death Row for a murder he did not commit.
- Chicago, IL. Christopher Abernathy served 29 years for a wrongful murder conviction.
According to one study, about 10,000 persons per year are wrongfully convicted in the United States. Because of the costs to litigate wrongful convictions, many states offer automatic recompense in order to stave off lawsuits. Still, the costs are large.
For instance, in the case of the four women in Texas, the state will likely pay each $80,000 per year incarcerated. Illinois provides an automatic payment of $199,150 if more than 14 years are served for a wrongful conviction. Louisiana falls on the low end of the scale, virtually begging those wrongfully convicted to sue. It provides, “$15,000 per year of wrongful incarceration, with a maximum of $150,000″ according to CNN.
Of course, the innocent do not have to accept these terms, but can sue in civil court in most cases.
Look at just the four mentioned cases again. What are the TRUE costs?
Aside from the social and family costs of having a loved one imprisoned wrongfully, there are concrete costs associated with the mistake. Some of these include:
- Prosecution costs
- Defense costs
- Court costs
- Incarceration costs
- Transportation costs
- Social welfare costs (TANF, Medicaid, etc.)
- Lost Wages (and resulting tax revenue)
- Medical costs
Taking these other costs into account, what is the total cost of just these four cases to America?
- According to Forbes, the average legal costs (prosecution and defense) for capital cases is $470,000.
- According to the Federal Register, the average cost to house prisoners is $31,000 per year.
- Rutgers University found that between 15% and 20% of children receiving social assistance had a parent in prison.
- SNAP costs on average $125 per person per month.
- TANF benefits amount to an average of $400 per month per family.
- Medicaid costs on average $9230 per year per person.
- Average family size in America is 2.54 persons; one child per two couples.
- Median wage in America is roughly $51,000 per year; the effective tax rate is 15%.
Calculating the Cost of the seven persons wrongfully convicted above.
In order to calculate the total costs of wrongful incarceration, one must take into account ALL costs. Those listed are only the most easily calculated direct expenses. Also, some assumptions must be made. For instance, it must be assumed that of the seven persons are listed above, two children were on government assitance. Lost wages not only impact GDP, but also the lost tax revenue. Also, each state allows for a different amount to be paid automatically; this amounts to about $50,000 per year per person.
All totaled, the seven mentioned exoneree’s spent 144 years in prison. So, the costs are:
- Automatic Damages Claims – 144 years x $50,000 = $7,200,000
- Legal Costs – 7 cases x $470,000 = $3,290,000
- Prison Costs – 144 years x $31,000/year = $4,464,000
- SNAP (food stamps) – 2 children x $125/mo x 20%(144 years x 12) = $86,400
- Medicaid – 2 children x 9230/yr x 20%(144 years) = $531,648
- TANF – 2 families x $400/mo x 20%(144 years x 12) = $276,480
- Cost to GDP = 7 x $51,000 x 144 years = $51,408,000
- Lost Taxes – $51,408,000 (GDP lost) x 15% = $7,711,200
Now, without adding the GDP figure, which while important does not affect the direct costs, the total cost to the United States of America in JUST THESE FOUR CASES OF WRONGFUL CONVICTION IS AT MINIMUM…
How Many Cases Have Been Proven to be Wrongful Convictions to date?
The Innocence Project alone is responsible for 347 wrongful convictions overturned in the United States. There are others. In addition, research suggests wrongful convictions to number 10,000 per year. Consider the math now.
Taking just the figures already determined, average $23,559,728 by seven wrongful convictions listed above. This gives us an average cost of $3,365,675. Now, this is by no means exact nor scientific in scale, but gives us a reasonable idea of the total costs.
So now we multiply $3,365,675 x 347 wrongful convictions overturned and we arrive at
for JUST THOSE WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS WE KNOW ABOUT from just one organization. Clearly, this is lowballing. The true figure is much higher. If the studies are correct and nearly 10,000 persons are wrongfully convicted each year, this figure is a fraction of the total cost.
Without a doubt, something needs to be done to improve the criminal justice and legal system so that wrongful convictions are reduced. The cost is enormous and only seems to grow each year. So the only question remaining is, “How much is too much?”
- Bureau of Labor Statistics. Economic News Release: Table 1. Median usual weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers by sex, quarterly averages, seasonally adjusted. United States Department of Labor. Retrieved 11/24/16 from http://www.bls.gov/news.release/wkyeng.t01.htm
- Carroll, A. E. (Sept 22, 2014). Medicaid Gives the Poor a Reason to Say No Thanks. The New York Times: The Upshot. Retrieved 11/24/16 from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/23/upshot/medicaid-gives-the-poor-a-reason-to-say-no-thanks.html?_r=0
- CBS News. (Nov 23, 2016). Texas women exonerated after nearly 15 years in prison for sexual assault. CBS News/Associated Press. Retrieved 11/24/16 from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/san-antonio-4-exonerated-after-15-years-in-prison-for-sexual-assault/
- CNN. (Mar 2012). Wrongful conviction compensation statutes. Retrieved 11/24/16 from http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2012/03/us/table.wrongful.convictions/
- EJI. (Mar 18, 2014). Glenn Ford Is Exonerated and Released After 30 Years on Louisiana’s Death Row. Equal Justice Initiative. Retrieved 11/24/16 from http://eji.org/news/glenn-ford-exonerated-released-after-30-years-louisiana-death-row
- Huff, R.C., Spring, T. 10,000 INNOCENT PEOPLE CONVICTED EACH YEAR, STUDY ESTIMATES. OSU Research News. Retrieved 11/24/16 from https://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/ronhuff.htm
- JUDGE, M. (Nov 24, 2016). Baton Rouge Settles Lawsuit with BLM Protesters for $100,000. The Root. Retrieved 11/24/16 from http://www.theroot.com/articles/news/2016/11/baton-rouge-black-lives-matter-lawsuit-settlement/
- Mai-Duc, C. (Feb 11, 2015). Wrongfully convicted Illinois man freed after nearly 30 years in prison. The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 11/24/16 from http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-illinois-abernathy-wrongful-conviction-20150211-story.html
- Maranjian, S. (Apr 26, 2013). “What Tax Bracket Am I In? It’s Complicated.” You should care more about your effective tax rate. The Motley Fool. Retrieved 11/24/16 from http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2013/04/26/what-tax-bracket-am-i-in-its-complicated.aspx
- Phillips, K. (May 1, 2014). Considering The Death Penalty: Your Tax Dollars At Work. Forbes. Retrieved 11/24/16 from http://www.forbes.com/sites/kellyphillipserb/2014/05/01/considering-the-death-penalty-your-tax-dollars-at-work/#4b20e2bb17f0
- Prisons Bureau. (Mar 9, 2015). Annual Determination of Average Cost of Incarceration. Federal Register: The Daily Journal of the United States Government. Retrieved 11/24/16 from https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2015/03/09/2015-05437/annual-determination-of-average-cost-of-incarceration
- Rutgers University. (2014). Children and Families of the Incarcerated Fact Sheet. National Resource Center on Children & Families of the Incarcerated. Retrieved 11/24/16 from https://nrccfi.camden.rutgers.edu/files/nrccfi-fact-sheet-2014.pdf
- Stanley, M., Floyd, I., & Hill, M. (Oct 17, 2016). TANF Cash Benefits Have Fallen by More Than 20 Percent in Most States and Continue to Erode. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Retrieved 11/24/16 from http://www.cbpp.org/research/family-income-support/tanf-cash-benefits-have-fallen-by-more-than-20-percent-in-most-states
- Statista. (2016) Number of people per household in the United States from 1960 to 2015. Statista: The Statistics Portal. Retrieved 11/24/16 from https://www.statista.com/statistics/183648/average-size-of-households-in-the-us/
- The Innocence Project. (Aug 23, 2016). Anthony Wright. Retrieved 11/24/16 from http://www.innocenceproject.org/cases/anthony-wright-exonerated/
- The Innocence Project. DNA Exonerations in the United States. Retrieved 11/24/16 from http://www.innocenceproject.org/dna-exonerations-in-the-united-states/
- Wikipedia. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Retrieved 11/24/16 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supplemental_Nutrition_Assistance_Program