According to a new investigation by the Better Government Association and the Northwestern Center for Wrongful Convictions, wrongful convictions endanger Illinois communities and cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
"In prison, time stood still," said Marvin Reeves, who spend more than two decades behind bars for a crime he didn't commit.
Reeves and Ronald Kitchen were convicted of the 1988 murders of two women and their three children on Chicago's South Side. But in 2009, after years of trying to convince the courts that both were railroaded by disgraced Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge, they won their freedom.
"It's like you're in a state of shock. and when you look at the video, of me being released, it's not that I didn't want to communicate and talk with the news media, I couldn't. That's how in a state of shock I was. It took everything in me to hold back the tears of me, finally being free," Reeves said.
The system does not work, it's horribly broken," said Private Investigator Paul Ciolino, who specializes in wrongful conviction cases in the Chicago area. "How do you compensate somebody when you steal 20 years of their life and put them in a box, put them in a cage? How do you put a cost on that?"
We found a fundamental breakdown of government, a fundamental failure of government," said John Conroy, who spearheaded the Better Government Association's newest investigation with the Northwestern Center for Wrongful Convictions. It shows that since 1989, wrongful convictions have cost Illinois taxpayers $214 million.
That's the total cost to try, incarcerate and compensate the 85 people who have been exonerated in Illinois since DNA began to be used as evidence in wrongful conviction cases.
I would hope that $200 million would seem like an extraordinary waste of money at a time when government can't afford to be wasting this kind of money," Conroy said.
According to the BGA, 95 percent of the wrongful convictions were caused by alleged government misconduct, like claims of police pressuring someone to confess or prosecutors withholding evidence. More than 50 percent of the cases involved mistaken eyewitnesses.
The human impact is even greater. In total, those who have been wrongfully convicted in Illinois spent more than 900 years behind bars when they should have been free.
That is sort of just shocking, and that's 85 men, that's amazing," said Laura Caldwell who runs Life After Innocence, a project at the Loyola School of Law that helps wrongfully convicted people readjust to life on the outside. "When they're innocent, it's not just stealing years from that person, we've kind of dropped a bomb on that family."
Algie Crivens III spent nearly 10 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit. Now he's working for the state, and helping others who have been wrongfully convicted get back on track.
"It was like the world was lifted off your shoulders, Crivens said. "Sometimes the root of the problem is changing the laws, setting up some kind of safety nets to make sure that innocent people are not wrongfully convicted."
According to the study, while the wrong people were locked up, the actual criminals committed at least 94 felonies, including 14 murders, 11 sexual assaults and 10 kidnappings.