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Paying for Lost Time

What is the responsibility of states to innocent people wrongly convicted of a crime?

Man's hands in handcuffs
The use of DNA testing in post-conviction criminal cases has helped exonerate more than 250 innocent people. These exonerees spend an average of 13 years in prison, often diverting any education or career trajectory they once pursued. So if the state wrongly incarcerates an innocent person, how much the state owes that citizen is a moral and ethical question--with a price tag.

Depending on the state, the wrongfully convicted could get social services and up to $80,000 per year--or get nothing at all. Twenty-seven states and Washington, D.C., provide compensation and/or services, but many states have provisions that could make an exoneree ineligible for such damages, including having a prior felony conviction or submitting a guilty plea when not guilty. Twenty-three states have no provisions, but the exonerated could sue or request compensation through a private bill, requiring a legislator to sponsor it--both options are difficult to pursue.

The Innocence Project, a criminal justice group, would like to see every state have an exoneree compensation law mimicking current federal guidelines: Provide the wrongly incarcerated up to $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration, and $100,000 per year served on death row. "The beauty of a compensation statute is that it provides a formula that treats everyone equally," says Rebecca Brown, policy advocate for the Innocence Project.

This year, at least seven states have considered implementing or adapting exoneree compensation laws--Michigan is considering a new law while New Jersey may seek to increase compensation. With states juggling tight budgets, it may be difficult for legislators to prioritize justice when it could carry a hefty price tag. But Brown says the time is always right to provide justice to the innocent. "There's always a matter of immediacy."

Andy Kim is a former GOVERNING staff writer.
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