Compensation Statutes Fail Those Wrongly Convicted

The Innocence project is a national litigation and public policy organization that is fighting injustice such as compensation for exonerated prisoners.
The Innocence project is a national litigation and public policy organization that is fighting injustice such as compensation for exonerated prisoners.

By Christopher Zoukis

Imagine serving a decade or more for a crime you didn’t commit. Maybe even on death row. By what seems a miracle, you find yourself exonerated on DNA evidence, and you are released. Euphoria; freedom! But now imagine what comes next – you’re thrown into a world you no longer understand, depending on when you were first put away you may never have had a job before, or finished school; maybe your friends and family are estranged, thinking you did that terrible crime.

And on top of the difficulties you face, you receive no compensation whatsoever. 

Unfortunately, that is reality for many wrongfully convicted individuals. Twenty states still do not have any form of compensation statutes, so the only chance for compensation is to bring a lawsuit, and those that do have them are all over the place in the compensation they provide, or who is eligible. 

Louisiana law provides up to $330,000 in compensation, but the burden of proof of innocence, despite the fact they were released, is placed on the wrongly convicted. This is similar in states with no compensation statutes, if someone chooses to bring a lawsuit, in that they must prove official misconduct- suits often fail because of this burden, if they are even undertaken due to the financial burden. In other states a burden of proof may not be required, but any previous felony convictions makes a person ineligible for compensation, as may any thought that the person may have contributed to their own conviction, such as a false or coerced confession. In other states, the compensation is woefully low. New Hampshire provides a flat fee of $20,000, no matter how long the person was imprisoned. 

Perhaps surprisingly, Texas is the state that provides the most compensation, providing $80,000 per year spent imprisoned in a lump sum, plus an additional annuity, and help reintegrating. But you are barred from filing a civil suit later. This is possibly most in line with the recommendations of the Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.  

They recommend $50,000 for each year in prison, with no restrictions on previous convictions or false confessions, reimbursement of attorney fees and access to social programs which would greatly ease the transition back into normal life, and clearing records- which is a surprising issue, leading to some exonerees carrying newspaper clippings to prove their innocence.   

It’s astonishing that compensation statutes are still so inadequate, and vary so widely. There should be no debate that those who are wrongfully convicted are compensated for their lost time, and that they receive help transitioning back into normal life, which even most compensation statutes do not provide for. Every person wrongfully committed should receive help transitioning, with mental and physical health, receive financial compensation for their lost time and inability to work, and should have their records cleared. This also doesn’t always happen, and can be hugely damaging, as is the stigma of having been in prison- guilty or not. 

Not only would higher, and more equitable, compensation payments provide better for those whose lives have suffered, but it is also suggested that this may help deter prosecutorial misconduct, which has led to so many wrongful convictions- important when 1281 exonerations were recorded from 1989 to 2013, representing 12,500 years in prison – and when our prison system is already vastly overburdened. 

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com