UC Berkeley researchers to collaborate in investigation of wrongful convictions

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California leads the nation in the number of exonerations since 1989, but a joint study by UC Berkeley researchers and a San Francisco-based criminal justice research firm has identified more cases of wrongful conviction within the state’s correctional system.

The state has cleared 120 people wrongfully convicted of criminal charges, but an additional 94 individuals were falsely sentenced under convictions found not to be legally sustainable since 1989, according to Rebecca Silbert, a project director and senior associate at UC Berkeley’s Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy.

Preliminary data released by The California Wrongful Convictions Project, a joint effort between the institute and the criminal justice research firm Hollway Advisory Services, showed that the cases have cost California taxpayers $129 million in incarceration and compensation costs and amount to more than 1,300 total years served in incarceration.

“Understanding the exact cost of these cases is essential to improve the system in a rational way,” said John Hollway, a leader of the project and founder of the firm. “When criminal justice reform proponents attempt to change the system, their appeals are inherently weakened when based on estimations.”

In June 2011, the researchers began investigating the primary factors that contribute to wrongful convictions and the economic impact of these cases. The group will publish its results by the end of 2013 in an effort to prevent premature incarcerations in the future, according to Silbert.

“The criminal justice system assumes there will be some level of error, but no one looks at where these errors are coming from or what is happening to the people on the receiving side of these errors,” Silbert said.

Daniel Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice, said one of the most severe flaws in the criminal justice system is a “blind pursuit of conviction” and called the system a “battle of egos” between lawyers and prosecutors.

“There is a culture among prosecutors — a notch-on-the-belt approach to prosecution — where the more (people) you send to prison, the higher (your) status among peers,” said Macallair. “With that mentality, sometimes prosecutors overlook facts that may not support their thesis.”

Because of the dynamics between different parties involved in the system, Hollway said he was disappointed by Tuesday’s failure of Proposition 34, which would have repealed the death penalty in California. He added that three individuals studied by the researchers were on death row before being proven innocent on appeal.

“Some people may say ‘an eye for an eye’ is OK,” Hollway said. “But it is not OK to execute the wrong person.”

Contact Virgie Hoban at [email protected].