Compensating The Wrongly Convicted
The punishment continues after incarceration…
Those proven to have been wrongfully convicted through post-conviction DNA testing spend, on average, more than 14 years behind bars. The agony of prison life and the complete loss of freedom are only compounded by the feelings of what might have been, but for the wrongful conviction. Deprived for years of family and friends and the ability to establish oneself professionally, the nightmare does not end upon release. With no money, housing, transportation, health services or insurance, and a criminal record that is rarely cleared despite innocence, the punishment lingers long after innocence has been proven. States have a responsibility to restore the lives of the wrongfully convicted to the best of their abilities.
Why Should a State Compensate the Wrongly Convicted?
Despite their proven innocence, the difficulty of reentering society is profound for the wrongfully convicted; the failure to compensate them adds insult to injury. Society has an obligation to promptly provide compassionate assistance to the wrongfully convicted in the following ways:
• Monetary Compensation, Based Upon a Set Minimum Amount For Each Year Served
• Provision of Immediate Services, Including:
– Financial support for basic necessities, including subsistence funds, food, transportation;
– Help securing affordable housing;
– Provision of medical/dental care, and psychological and/or counseling services;
– Assistance with education and the development of workforce skills; and
– Legal services to obtain public benefits, expunge criminal records, and regain custody of children.
Official Acknowledgement of a Wrongful Conviction
“Conceding that no system is perfect, the government’s public recognition of the harm inflicted upon a wrongfully convicted person helps to foster his healing process, while assuring the public that the government – regardless of fault – is willing to take ownership of its wrongs or errors.”
Do all states have compensation statutes?
The federal government, the District of Columbia, and 38 states have compensation statutes of some form.
The following 12 states do not have compensation laws: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Mexico, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Wyoming.
What Are Common Shortcomings in Existing Legislation?
• Insufficient monetary compensation and social services
• Refusing to enact uniform, statutory access to wrongful conviction compensation. Some states opt to compensate the wrongfully convicted only via “private compensation bills.” This approach: politicizes compensation based on the individuals and policymakers involved; requires exonerees to mount costly and demanding political campaigns; and threatens to deny appropriate – or any – compensation to those who truly deserve it.
• Prohibiting compensation to those deemed to have “contributed” to their wrongful convictions. This provision can deny justice to those who were coerced, explicitly or implicitly, into confessing or pleading guilty to crimes it was proven they did not commit.
• Denying the additional remedy deserved by those who can prove their wrongful convictions resulted from patent and intentional civil rights violations, as opposed to simple error.
• Preventing the compensation of individuals with unrelated, felony convictions.
What Can Be Done to Ensure Fair Compensation In Every State?
By guaranteeing compensation to the wrongfully convicted, a state can take an important step towards ensuring the integrity of its criminal justice system.
• States that do not have compensation statutes must pass them and states that have compensation statutes must reexamine them to ensure they make compensation equally attainable and adequate for the wrongfully convicted.
• Statutes should include either a fixed sum or a range of recovery for each year spent in prison. President George W. Bush endorsed Congress’s recommended amount of up to $50,000 per year, with up to an additional $50,000 for each year spent on death row. Adjusted for inflation, this amount is $63,000.
• In Texas, an even more robust compensation framework is in place, compensating the wrongfully convicted $80,000 per year and an annuity set at the same amount.
• Statutes should include the immediate provision of subsistence funds and access to services critical to a successful return to society, including housing, food, psychological counseling, medical and dental care, job skills training, education, and other relevant assistance needed to foster the successful rebuilding of the lives of the wrongfully convicted.
• Statutes should not contain the provisions noted in the “Common Shortcomings in Existing Legislation” section above.
Case in Point: Compensation in Florida
In 2004, Floridian Wilton Dedge was exonerated after having been forced to spend 22 years in prison for a rape and burglary that he did not commit. Upon his release from wrongful imprisonment, however, Mr. Dedge was entitled to absolutely nothing from the state. Mr. Dedge’s lawsuit against the state was dismissed by the trial court. His only alternative to the courts was to seek a private compensation bill from the legislature.
Despite the public outcry over the injustice he had suffered, the legislature initially refused to pass the “private bill” necessary to compensate him. (Florida did eventually pass a private bill for Mr. Dedge and in 2008, passed a universal statute, obviating the need for the extraordinary advocacy that was needed for Mr. Dedge.) Having to convince the legislature of the need for compensation makes it a political issue, and successfully suing in court presents a new set of legal and financial obstacles to the wrongfully convicted – when compensation should be a simple issue of justice.
There is simply no question that when an innocent person has had his life stripped from him only to endure the horror of prison, justice demands that the individual be compensated for the harm suffered. States should adequately and promptly provide justice and restoration to the wrongly convicted through a standard, navigable, and just process.