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Wrongful Convictions and the Hidden Costs of a Police State

Yesterday the New York City Council held hearings with the six district attorneys from New York City (one for each borough, plus the Special Narcotics Prosecutor).  The hearings related to budgetary considerations and the needs of each office.  Ken Thompson, our new Brooklyn District Attorney, was asked where the money comes from to pay out on lawsuits from all the wrongful convictions his office is dealing with.  His pitch perfect response was that compensation for those victims was not his issue to deal with- his job was simply to restore justice to the wrongfully convicted.

Amen, and kudos to Mr. Thompson for tackling the wrongful convictions head on.  The answer to the question, however, is that the money will come at times from the City, if the suits can establish misconduct that led to the convictions, and at times from the State, if the suit is simply pursuant to the Court of Claims Act provisions allowing for compensation for the wrongfully convicted and imprisoned.  Either way, these poor victims of bad prosecutions deserve more than we as a society can ever pay them.

But pay we we will- tens, hopefully hundreds of millions of dollars.  These innocent people, convicted in our names, should get every dime we can pay them.  But these are the hidden costs of our police state, and they should be made clear to those who think that over-policing has no down side.  The costs are plain to the families of young men of color who get stopped by cops without reasonable suspicion every week.  The costs are plain to the underprivileged who get arrested for things my white privileged self would never get arrested for, and then squeezed to work for the city for free, picking up trash on a freezing overpass.  The costs are plain to all of us criminal defense lawyers, who defend many of the guilty, to protect all of the innocent.

When those costs are no longer hidden, real change may finally come to our system, and we can start to change behavior.  We should start by training our prosecutors that a conviction can be a loss, justice is always a win, and only an open mind can serve justice.

Andrew Stoll is a New York City Criminal Defense, Civil Rights, and Employee Lawyer. He is the founding partner of Stoll, Glickman & Bellina, LLP, a Brooklyn based law firm dedicated to empowering the exploited. Stoll is an adjunct law professor at Seton Hall Law School, sits on the Corrections Committee of the New York City Bar Association, and is a member of the National Police Accountability Project.