As mass incarceration continues to plague the United States criminal justice system, improved technology and evidence-gathering techniques seek to identify and exonerate the wrongfully convicted. Those accused of a crime may be wrongfully convicted for a variety of reasons such as eyewitness misidentifications, coerced false confessions, faulty forensics science, incompetent public defenders, and suppression of important evidence by prosecuting attorneys. Organizations such as The Innocence Project have been instrumental in helping to uncover cases of previous wrongful convictions. The increase in exonerations such as with the Central Park 5 (recently renamed the Exonerated 5) brings into focus the issue of compensation for errors in convictions that result in an innocent person time in prison for crimes he or she did not commit. In order to properly examine the issue, it is necessary to first evaluate the current system that is in place on the federal and state levels.
In 2004, Congress passed the Justice for All Act which guarantees individuals exonerated of federal crimes $50,000 for every year they spent in prison and $100,000 for every year they spent on death row. This Act specifically delineates the federal compensation scheme; however, from state to state, the exonerated individuals do not receive the same guarantees or compensation after a conviction is overturned. The compensation that is awarded varies on a case-by-case basis; where an individual is convicted bears critically on the compensation he or she is awarded. There are 35 states that have compensation statutes in place, but the substance of these statutes varies greatly. Some states award a fixed amount per year; some states provide for a permissible range of monetary award; some states provide more compensation than federal compensation law, and some provide less. Fifteen states do not even provide for compensation laws, leaving those who have served time for wrongful convictions with little to no redress.
The extreme loss that wrongfully convicted individuals experience at the hands of states supports the contention that states should be burdened by a duty to compensate exonerated prisoners. Individuals who have been wrongfully imprisoned have often lost their careers, reputations, families, and relationships, essentially destroying their lives. Additionally, the individuals are often left with no assistance along with a criminal record that is rarely fully cleared, despite their innocence. An effective and fair justice system cannot be solely punitive in nature: it also needs to be restorative when mistakes are made. Requiring states to undertake a duty to compensate corrects past errors and makes the justice system more just. However, it is important to remember that while imposing a duty to compensate provides individuals with a viable avenue for compensation, it does not guarantee any amount of compensation. Even if there is a duty to compensate, there are often other barriers to effectiveness, such as a high standard of proof that makes obtaining adequate compensation difficult.
A lengthy legal and political battle often follows a wrongful conviction to earn monetary compensation based on stringent preexisting legal standards. Even in states with compensation laws already in place, there are other restrictions imposed that may prevent a wrongful convict from obtaining adequate compensation. For example, several states require a finding that the individual did not contribute to his or her own conviction in order to reap the benefits of the state’s compensation statute. Thereby, a person who falsely confessed or pleaded guilty to a crime she did not commit could be prohibited from receiving compensation, even after she was ultimately proven innocent. This caveat ultimately constructs a major hurdle to the administration of justice, considering the frequent use of plea bargains in the criminal justice system. In fact, plea bargains are so common that more than 90 percent of state and federal criminal convictions are the result of guilty pleas pursuant to a plea bargain. Although monetary compensation cannot fully recompense individuals for the experiences, time, and suffering they have endured as the results of wrongful convictions, it provides an important first step in the process of re-compensating an individual for the undue incarceration (and possible subsequent trauma) that they had to experience.
If we determine that a duty to compensate wrongfully imprisoned individuals does exist for states, should that duty extend beyond monetary compensation? Many convicted criminals may receive support via state reentry programs and assistance after leaving prison, but individuals that are exonerated following a wrongful conviction do not. In other words, there are no systems or resources currently in place to help exonerated individuals transition from life in prison to the greater society. Of the 35 states that currently have laws in place to compensate the wrongfully convicted, only 19 states include additional resources such as medical expenses, job search assistance, housing assistance, or counseling services. Providing ancillary services as opposed to solely compensation (which may not be granted, and, even if granted, may take years) provides individuals with a way to move forward from the trauma of wrongful imprisonment and works to remove the social and psychological stigma associated with imprisonment. Thus, in order to even come close to adequately compensating an individual who was wrongfully convicted, the duty to compensate must extend beyond mere monetary compensation.
About the author: Ayomikun Loye is J.D. candidate for the Class of 2020 at Cornell Law School. He earned his B.A. in Political Science and B.S. in Legal Studies from the University of Central Florida in 2017. In Ayomikun’s spare time, he enjoys playing basketball, tennis, and reading.
Suggested citation: Ayomikun Loye, An Examination of Compensation Following Wrongful Convictions, Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y, The Issue Spotter, (Feb. 24, 2020), http://jlpp.org/blogzine/an-examination-of-compensation-following-wrongful-convictions/.