NRE report: Wrongly convicted have spent combined 20 thousand years in prison


The Washington Post this week reported on a study commissioned by the National Registry of Exonerations that found that since 1989, some 2,000 exonerees spent a combined 20 thousand years in prison.

The report, which hasn’t been published yet — Washington Post reporter Radley Balko was given an advance copy — provides additional evidence of how pervasive racism is in our criminal justice system, but also reveals some surprising findings, including that:

  • Since 1989, the 2,265 exonerees in the registry’s database served a combined 20,080 years in prison;
  • Exonerees who had made false confessions were more successful in suing for damages, and were awarded more money when they won; and
  • Mississippi is the most generous of all the states that award compensation, although this could be due to the fact they require the exonerees who receive payment to forego the right to sue the state for civil damages.

Among the less surprising findings:

  • African Americans are more likely to be wrongly convicted: they make up 12 percent of the population, but 46 percent of exonerees;
  • Black exonerees spend more time in prison before being cleared and released — approximately three more years than their white counterparts — and are compensated less;
  • More than half those in the exoneree database have never been compensated;
  • Of the states that set the amount of compensation, the exonerees average $69 thousand per year in prison, while those who sue average more than $300 thousand per year;
  • Blue states pay about 50 percent more than red states.

The report will be released with a law review article by George Washington University Law professor Jeffrey Gutman. According to the Post, Gutman found that “Between lawsuits and state statutes that award fixed compensation for wrongful convictions, state and municipal governments have paid out $2.2 billion to exonerees.”

That sounds like a lot of money, but as Balko says in his editorial, “This is nowhere near the total cost of wrongful convictions. To calculate that, you’d need to look at how much it costs to investigate, convict, and imprison the wrong person; the effects the wrongful conviction had on that person, his or her family, and his or her community; and any crimes the real culprit committed after authorities apprehended the wrong suspect.”

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