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Taxpayers are familiar with waste in boondoggles such as California’s $68 billion bullet train project and the new span of the Bay Bridge with its cost overruns of $5 billion. Likewise, State Parks bureaucrats keep a hidden slush fund of $54 million and education bosses get lavish salaries and benefits unconnected to student achievement. Waste can also crop up in relatively unfamiliar places, as Foon Rhee notes in the Sacramento Bee.
Rhee has consulted Criminal Injustice: A Cost Analysis of Wrongful Convictions, Errors, and Failed Prosecutions in California’s Criminal Justice System, a “first-of-its-kind study” from the Opportunity Institute that attempts to tally “the dollars-and-cents price of injustice to California taxpayers.” Adjusted for inflation, these costs come to “at least $221 million from 1989 through 2012.” The total includes $80 million in incarceration expenses, $68 million in trial and appeal costs and $5 million for wrongful imprisonment for more than 600 people whose felony convictions were overturned. The grand total rises to $282 million when 85 exonerations from the Rampart police corruption scandal in Los Angeles are included.
According to the study, errors in homicides cost an average of $1.3 million per case and account for more than 50 percent of the costs. More mistakes occur in violent crimes, and the most costly errors involved prosecutorial misconduct. As the study notes, a decade ago a state commission aimed to reduce wrongful convictions but few of its recommendations were enacted. So as Foon Rhee recalls, “It’s been clear for years that more should be done to prevent these unjust prosecutions, which punish the innocent and let the guilty go free.” If legislators won’t respond to the pleas of the exonerated, Rhee concludes, “maybe angry taxpayers will get their attention.” By confirming that waste and injustice are chained together, the new Criminal Injustice study will help taxpayers make the case for long overdue reforms.