Pain, Suffering and Jury Awards: A Study of the Cost of Wrongful Convictions

63 Pages Posted: 5 Feb 2021 Last revised: 10 Jun 2021

See all articles by Mark A. Cohen

Mark A. Cohen

Vanderbilt University - Strategy and Business Economics; Vanderbilt University - Law School; Resources for the Future

Date Written: June 10, 2021


This paper estimates the cost of wrongful convictions and the time spent in prison based on a cross sectional regression analysis of awards and settlements for individuals who were wrongfully convicted and incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. Key variables of interest are number of days spent in prison, days on probation, and demographics of wrongfully convicted and their families. The sample consists of all known individuals (n=514) who successfully sued for damages and received payment through either trial or settlement between 1992 and 2019. Wrongful convictions cause significant tangible and intangible harm to individuals and their families which can be monetized using ex post jury awards. The average “cost” of a wrongful conviction is estimated to be $6.1 million, or $1,334 per day of incarceration. The marginal cost decreases over time: initial incarceration is valued at over $50,000 for the first day; year one is valued at $1.5 million ($4,000/day), while the marginal cost of the 10th year is estimated to be approximately $350,000 ($950/day). Wrongfully convicting and incarcerating one individual is about as costly as the harm caused by a career criminal over their lifetime. Future research might focus on society’s ex ante willingness-to-pay to avoid wrongful convictions. This study provides policymakers with a tool to value increased expenditures for DNA testing, indigent defense counsel, and other innovations designed to reduce wrongful convictions.

Keywords: wrongful conviction, false imprisonment, cost of incarceration, jury awards

JEL Classification: D61, K42, H40, K13

Suggested Citation

Cohen, Mark A., Pain, Suffering and Jury Awards: A Study of the Cost of Wrongful Convictions (June 10, 2021). Available at SSRN: or

Mark A. Cohen (Contact Author)

Vanderbilt University - Strategy and Business Economics ( email )

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