Exonerees Face Ongoing Hardship without Compensation
Minnesota recently joined the list of 29 states plus Washington, D.C., which have a statute providing for some form of compensation for the wrongly convicted, but even some of these laws don’t meet society’s moral obligation to help exonerated people recover from the injustice they suffered and the years of freedom they lost.
The lack of money and a place to live coupled with a criminal record that may not be cleared despite proof of innocence often means that the unjust punishment lingers long after the wrongly convicted are freed from prison. The burden falls on the states to compensate for time spent behind bars.
NPR reported that 20 states provide nothing to wrongfully convicted people. According to NPR, of the 30 states that do offer compensation, 12 states and D.C. award damages on a case-by-case basis and the remaining pay a fixed amount per year of imprisonment, ranging from $5,000 to $80,000. On average, states pay to the tune of $50,000, which is also the amount awarded by the federal government.
According to University of Virginia Law Professor Brandon Garrett, states that compensate the wrongfully convicted might actually be trying to save money, since people who are exonerated can sue states and sometimes win awards on the order of a million dollars per year of imprisonment.
But for many of the exonerated, compensation doesn’t happen overnight even if their state has a statute in place and that means the suffering brought on by a wrongful conviction lingers even after being freed. Even when compensation occurs in a timely manner, sometimes it just isn’t enough. The Associated Press highlighted the challenges faced by Louisiana exonerees who receive $25,000 per year for each year of incarceration.
served 25 years in Angola for a rape he didn’t commit before DNA testing proved his innocence and exonerated him. Since his release in 2008, he spends time with his children and grandchildren and opened his own leather shop after learning the trade inside prison. Without health insurance and no Social Security or retirement savings, Johnson can’t even dream of retirement.
served 21 years in Angola for a rape he didn’t commit before DNA testing proved his innocence and exonerated him. He was released before the state provided compensation and had to wait six years before it did. Willis, now 56, will receive his last payment in 2015 under the current law which provides up to $150,000. He lives with his wife and grandson and said he has struggled to find work.
He told the Associated Press, “My grandson looks at me and asks me for things – nice clothes, he wants to have a nice Christmas and all of that. It makes me feel awful. . . .I feel like I’m less than a man, that I’m not able to support my family. It hurts me inside. I’m full of rage and pain.”
Two years ago, State Rep. Herbert Dixon, D-Alexandria, pushed for an expansion of Louisiana’s compensation law, capping the overall amount at $500,000. Although the bill passed, it was capped at $250,000 instead. During the next legislative session, he plans to push a bill that will set aside money for the wrongfully convicted. Under the measure, proceeds from a $6 nonrefundable civil court filing fee would go into the Innocence Compensation Fund.
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