Quantifying the costs of wrongful incarcerations

As many of you already know, the Innocence Project is dedicated to freeing people who have been wrongfully incarcerated. At times, the people are freed after examining or re-examining biometric evidence, such as fingerprint evidence or DNA evidence.

The latter evidence was relevant in the case of Uriah Courtney, who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for kidnapping and rape based upon eyewitness testimony. At the time of Courtney’s arrest, DNA testing did not return any meaningful results. Eight years later, however, DNA technology had advanced to the point where the perpetrator could be identified—and, as the California Innocence Project noted, the perpetrator wasn’t Uriah Courtney.

I’ve read Innocence Project stories before, and the one that sticks most in my mind was the case of Archie Williams, who was released (based upon fingerprint evidence) after being imprisoned for a quarter century. At the time that Williams’ wrongful conviction was vacated, Vanessa Potkin, director of post-conviction litigation at the Innocence Project, stated, “There is no way to quantify the loss and pain he has endured.”

But that doesn’t mean that people haven’t tried to (somewhat) quantify the loss.

In the Uriah Courtney case, while it’s impossible to quantify the loss to Courtney himself, it is possible to quantify the loss to the state of California. Using data from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office 2018-19 annual costs per California inmate, the California Innocence Project calculated a “cost of wrongful incarceration” of $649,624.

One can quibble with the methodology—after all, the 2018-19 costs presumably overestimate the costs of incarcerating someone who was released from custody on May 9, 2013—but at least it illustrates that a cost of wrongful incarceration CAN be calculated. Add to that the costs of prosecuting the wrong person (including jury duty daily fees), and the costs can be quantified.

To a certain extent.

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