States’ Financial Obligations to the Wrongfully Convicted Struggle under Budget Deficits
Amid budget deficits and fiscal priorities, many states are struggling with how to compensate the wrongfully convicted once they are exonerated.
In a recent ABC News story, Alan Northrop was featured as one of the many wrongfully convicted people who are waiting to be compensated for the states’ mistake after their release. Northrop served 17 years in Washington prisons for a rape and kidnapping he didn’t commit.
“It’s a real patchwork,” New York-based Innocence Project policy advocate Rebecca Brown said. “States had been addressing the cases piecemeal with private bills because maybe only one or two people were coming out every few years. But as time goes on, we’re seeing that this is really a systemic problem and there is a great deal of wrongful convictions. A more comprehensive framework needs to get worked out.”
Between 1989 and 1999, there were 66 exonerations by DNA evidence alone. The following decade yielded another 203. Statutes providing for some form of compensation for the wrongfully convicted are in place in 27 states plus Washington, D.C., 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.
In 2004, President George W. Bush signed into law a requirement that wrongfully convicted federal inmates should receive up to $50,000 per year spent behind bars, and $100,000 per year for time spent on death row.
But draft legislation in Washington that would provide up to $20,000 per year to Northrop, failed to pass a Senate committee this year.
“These people have suffered more than any of us can imagine, on every level,” said Brown. “The horror of prison when you’re wrongfully convicted is just a new level of injustice. And, obviously, we ought to do everything we can to make people as whole as we can.”
The Innocence Project is working with lawmakers to help pass or improve compensation laws in several states this year. Michigan, where a number of exonerated people wait for state financial support, is poised to become the 28th state with a compensation law.
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