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The cost of wrongful convictions: 20,000 lost years, and counting

According to a recent report, The National Registry of Exonerations has finally hit a terrible milestone: victims on wrongful convictions who were later exonerated for crimes they didn’t commit have now lost more than 20,000 years behind bars.

Specifically, the Registry — which is a joint project involving the University of Michigan Law School, Michigan State University College of Law and the University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science & Society — indicates that exonerated individuals have spent a total of 20,080 years wrongfully imprisoned.

When broken down even further, the Registry shows that the 2,265 exonerees listed have lost, on average, more than 8 years and 10 months each behind bars.

Some of the other alarming findings outlined in the recent report include:

  • Innocent black individuals are the most likely victims of wrongful convictions. In fact, while they only make up roughly 12 percent of the population, black Americans account for 46 percent of the exonerees and 56 percent of the 20,080 lost years.
  • Innocent black defendants spent more time in jail. For example, black exonerees spent, on average, 10.7 years in prison before being freed, while white exonerees spent only 7.4 years, on average — a 45 percent difference.
  • More than half of the exonerees received no compensation for their imprisonment. Indeed, even though more than $2.2 billion has been paid to victims of wrongful convictions, only about 44 percent of the exonerees reviewed actually received compensation for their time behind bars — meaning 56 percent have received nothing so far.
  • New York was slightly better than the national average when it came to compensating victims. Specifically, 60 percent of wrongful conviction victims in New York have received some compensation.

For many of these victims, they can never truly be made whole, even if they have received some type of compensation. After all, how many of these individuals have been robbed of their careers and family relationships, including marriages? And how many have had to spend time in jail as their children grew up and loved ones passed away? The reality is that they can never be truly repaid for the injustices they have had to suffer.

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