Recent decades have seen a surge in the number of people who have been exonerated based on DNA evidence.
Although this is undeniably positive news to those who have unjustly spent years of their lives behind bars, it has also given rise to a new question: should these people receive monetary compensation for the years they lost in prison? And if so, just how much should they be compensated?
While 21 states, including Oregon, Pennsylvania and Michigan, offer no compensation at all to people who have been wrongly incarcerated, Washington DC and 12 others – including New York and Maine – vary this compensation on a case-by-case basis.
Still others compensate such people through a set amount. In these cases, people can receive anywhere from $5,000 per year they wrongly spent in prison, all the way up to $80,000 for each year they spent in prison.
(charts via NPR)
Texas offers the highest compensation per year spent in prison – $80,000 – to people who were wrongly sentenced. Wisconsin appears on the opposite end of this range, offering $5,000 for each year spent in prison.
Colorado, which offers $70,000, pays the second highest amount after exoneration.
Notably, six states and the federal government offer $50,000 per year spent wrongly incarcerated.
This, however, is more than just a coincidence: federal payments were set by a decade-old law, at which time Alabama, offering $50,000, had set the bar for the highest compensation.
Thus, as Stephen Saloom, policy director at the Innocence Project suggests, the federal government simply decided to match the highest rate at the time; other states may have simply followed the government’s lead.
As Paul Cates of the Innocence Project said, “There doesn’t seem to be any other rational behind the number.”
In the 21 states that provide no money after exoneration, people can sue for damages.
That being said, some states’ policies of paying the wrongfully committed might actually be attempts to save money: people who sue states after exoneration can sometimes win awards of up to $1 million per year of imprisonment, according to University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett.