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How Much Money Do Innocent Prisoners Get?

The wrongful conviction and imprisonment of innocent people is a tragic failing of the criminal justice system. When an innocent person is exonerated and released from prison, many face immense challenges integrating back into society after losing years of their life behind bars.

Monetary compensation from the state is one way to help these individuals get back on their feet, but the amounts vary widely across the country. This article will examine how much money innocent prisoners receive after their convictions are overturned, the factors that influence compensation amounts, and the overall inadequacy of current laws to fully repay exonerees.

State Compensation Laws

Federal Government

The federal government does not have a standardized national program to compensate exonerees. At the federal level, monetary awards are determined on a case-by-case basis through private bills in Congress or lawsuits under the Unjust Conviction and Imprisonment Act. Payouts from these avenues are rare and uneven.

State Governments

Compensation for wrongful conviction is largely left to individual states. Currently, 36 states, Washington D.C., and the federal government have laws to provide exonerees with some monetary relief, but the amounts awarded can differ greatly between states. Some key factors that influence compensation include:

  • Caps on Total Amounts: Many states cap the total amount exonerees can receive regardless of the length of wrongful imprisonment. These limits range from $20,000 in New Hampshire to $1 million in Texas. States without caps may award over $1 million.
  • Rates of Compensation: Some states offer a flat rate such as $50,000 per year while others provide a daily rate such as $100 per day of wrongful imprisonment. Daily rates produce widely varying totals.
  • Eligibility Requirements: Some states require proof of factual innocence to receive compensation, while others only require overturned convictions even if innocence is not definitively proven. Some deny funds if exonerees contributed to their conviction in any way.
  • Social Services: Some states offer job skills training, tuition assistance, medical care, counseling services, and other benefits in addition to monetary payments. Others provide only the cash payouts.
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State Compensation Examples

  • Texas: Considered one of the most generous states, Texas pays $80,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment with no cap on total amounts. Exonerees also receive an annuity, tuition credits, and access to healthcare.
  • California: California caps total compensation at $140,000. The average payout is only $55,000 due to eligibility requirements and low annual payments.
  • Florida: Florida’s rate of $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration is undercut by a total cap of only $2 million. The average payment is $269,000.
  • New Hampshire: New Hampshire has the lowest cap at just $20,000 total regardless of years served.

Table of Example Crimes and Compensation

Below is a table summarizing real cases of wrongful convictions and the compensation the exonerees received:

NameYear ConvictedYears ServedStateCompensation
Wilbert Jones197546 yearsLouisiana$225,000
Lawrence McPherson198732 yearsNew York$1.95 million
Wiley Bridgeman197539 yearsOhio$1.6 million
Richard Lapointe198926 yearsConnecticut$9.5 million
Teddy Brooks20117 yearsMississippi$500,000 cap reached

Quotes from Exonerees on Compensation

“The state should pay. But no amount of money could compensate me for the time I lost.”Herman Atkins, exonerated in California after 11 years

“I served 17 years for crimes I did not commit. And I feel like I deserve some type of restitution for the time that was taken away from me.”Jeffrey Deskovic, wrongly convicted New Yorker

“You just can’t put a dollar amount on someone’s life.”Perry Lott, freed after 21 years in prison in Oklahoma

“For someone to lose that amount of time, to suffer for years, and then to be expected to live a normal life – it’s impossible without significant compensation.”Sabrina Butler, exonerated of murder in Mississippi

Factors Limiting Compensation for Exonerees

While 36 states have compensation laws, several factors result in underpayment of exonerees nationwide:

  • Caps on total awards ignore large variations in years served and limit payments for the wrongfully imprisoned for decades.
  • Restrictive eligibility laws in some states prevent some worthy exonerees from receiving any compensation.
  • Bureaucratic roadblocks, legal wrangling, and procedural requirements delay payouts for years in some cases.
  • Exonerees must pay taxes on their awards, significantly reducing take-home amounts.
  • The cost of living rises over decades behind bars, eroding the real value of compensation.
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The Insufficiency of State Compensation

Given lengthy prison terms, loss of livelihood, and severe trauma most exonerees face, current compensation laws in many states fail to adequately provide for exonerees after release. Some key points:

  • The majority of state compensation laws pay well below federal standards recommending at least $100,000 per year of wrongful incarceration.
  • No amount of money can make up for years of one’s life lost behind bars. Time should be the guiding principle in compensation, not caps and limits.
  • Exonerees face huge hurdles reintegrating into society, including lack of financial resources, severed family ties, poor healthcare, and psychological trauma. Compensation should facilitate this immense transition.
  • Many exonerees earn little to nothing in prison wages. They emerge with no savings or assets after decades behind bars. Compensation should provide a stable financial foundation.
  • Rebuilding life after exoneration often requires significant medical treatment, psychological counseling, job training, tuition, housing, and more. Compensation awards rarely cover these full costs.

Recent Developments

While compensation remains inadequate across much of the U.S., some recent developments signal slow progress:

  • Increased Awards: High profile exonerations are resulting in larger payouts in some states, including multi-million dollar settlements. However, most exonerees still receive far less.
  • Reformed State Laws: Several states, including Texas, Florida, and Ohio, have recently enacted higher compensation caps and rates. But more reform is needed nationwide.
  • Expanded Services: Some local programs now provide critical services to exonerees including healthcare, counseling, job assistance, and substance abuse treatment. However, such programs remain limited.
  • Wrongful Conviction Commissions: Reform commissions in some states actively identify needed legislative improvements.
  • Exoneree Advocacy: Groups like the Innocence Project advocate for wrongfully convicted individuals and lobby for compensation reform laws.
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The incarceration of innocent people exposes grave flaws in the criminal justice system. While no dollar amount can restore lost years, compensation can help exonerees get back on their feet. However, current compensation laws remain woefully inadequate across much of the country.

Lifting restrictive caps, increasing pay rates, and expanding social services are critical steps to help rebuild the lives of the wrongfully imprisoned. Until states fully recognize the immense debt owed to exonerees, true justice remains elusive.

Key FAQs about Compensation for Exonerees

Is compensation guaranteed if you are exonerated?

No, only 36 states plus Washington D.C. currently have laws to compensate exonerees. In the remaining states, there is no guarantee of any compensation. Even in states with laws, bureaucratic obstacles often prevent or delay payments.

Who pays the compensation?

Compensation is paid by the specific state in which the wrongful conviction occurred. The federal government does not currently have a standardized national compensation program.

Are there time limits to apply for compensation?

Many states require exonerees to file claims within strict time limits after release, often 1-3 years. Failing to apply in time can forfeit the right to compensation. Some states provide exceptions for good cause.

Are minors treated differently?

A few state laws provide higher rates of compensation specifically for exonerees wrongfully imprisoned as juveniles. Most treat minors no differently. Special support for minors is required given their immense trauma and curtailed education.

In addition to cash, what other kinds of compensation might exonerees receive?

Some states provide critical services including job skills training, tuition assistance, healthcare coverage, psychological counseling, and substance abuse treatment. However, most states still limit compensation to only cash payouts. More states need to expand comprehensive services.

Prison Inside Team

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We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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