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81% of Exonerated People Who Have Been Compensated Under State Laws Received Less Than the Federal Standard, New Innocence Project Report Shows

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Only 27 states compensate the wrongfully convicted; even among those that do have laws on the books, financial support and social services fall far short

(NEW YORK, NY; Wednesday, December 2, 2009) – A report released today by the Innocence Project shows that of the more than 240 people exonerated through DNA testing nationwide, 40% have not received any form of assistance after their release.   Among those who have been compensated under state laws, the vast majority received very small amounts of money and no social services, the report finds. While exonerees are stripped of their property, jobs, freedom and reputation, only 10 states include provisions for services within their compensation laws.

The report comes as a staggering 23 states in the nation do not offer any compensation to the exonerated.  Exonerated people who live in one of the 27 states that have a compensation law may file for state compensation, but the average length of time exonerees wait to receive funds is almost three full years. In the meantime, the exoneree may lack a source of income, a means of transportation, health coverage and a stable home. The Innocence Project said it will work with local advocates to pass compensation laws over the next year in several states, including Michigan and Pennsylvania.  It will also work with local advocates to make improvements to existing statues in several states, including Florida, New Jersey, New York and Wisconsin.

Titled, “Making up for Lost Time: What the Wrongfully Convicted Endure and How to Provide Fair Compensation,” the report underlines how each state should immediately provide the compassionate assistance necessary for exonerees to pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives.  It details the specific obstacles that exonerees face, the lack of support they currently receive and how compensation statutes in many states have not done justice to the wrongfully convicted. It also presents solutions to these shortcomings and gives examples of how exonerees have used state compensation to find housing and meet other urgent needs, nurture talents, find success and get their bearings in the free world.
 
 “When people are exonerated, they should find a safety net, not another long legal battle,” said Stephen Saloom, Policy Director at the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law.  “States have a responsibility to restore innocent people’s lives to the best of their abilities; every single state needs to pass a comprehensive compensation statute without further delay.”

A list of recommendations for compensation laws have been developed by the Innocence Project after years of working with exonerees and their families, legislators, social workers and psychologists.  The model legislation includes: provide a minimum of $50,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment and $100,000 per year on death row (this amount is based on the federal government’s standard created through the Innocence Protection Act of 2004); cover limited and appropriate attorney’s fees associated with filing for compensation; provide immediate services including housing, transportation, education, workforce development, physical and mental health care through the state employee’s health care system and other transitional services; and issue an official acknowledgment of the wrongful conviction.

“Eligibility for funding under compensation statutes is already significantly restrictive. The exoneree must be able to show that she served time in prison for a crime she didn’t commit,” the report found.  “DNA testing is the surest way of proving innocence, but it is not available in every case. Therefore, the applicant must show that the prosecution has dropped the charges, or that she was found not guilty on re-trial, or that the governor has issued a pardon. Having a conviction overturned based on a legal technicality would not be enough to qualify for compensation.”

Existing compensation laws vary widely, from a flat maximum total of $20,000 regardless of the number of years spent wrongfully imprisoned in New Hampshire, to $80,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment with no maximum total in Texas. Only five states meet the federal standard of up to $50,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment.  Other states deny assistance to applicants who falsely confessed or pled guilty, and still others deny compensation to applicants who were exonerated without the benefit of DNA testing. (See below for a complete breakdown of compensation statues by state.)

Unfortunately, there are no consistent standards from state to state regarding compensation.  In several states, inmates must file civil lawsuits in order to be compensated. In others, the legislature will consider a “private bill” to compensate one individual, rather than creating a policy for compensation any time someone is proven innocent.

“While there is no amount of money that can give back the years spent behind bars as a result of a wrongful conviction, the state should at the very least be readily offering generous assistance” Saloom said.  “The state needs to weigh how the wrongful imprisonment affects each exoneree psychologically and physically—not just financially.”

The findings in “Making up for Lost Time: What the Wrongfully Convicted Endure and How to Provide Fair Compensation,” released today, include:

• Of the more than 240 people exonerated through DNA testing nationwide, 40% have not received any form of assistance.

• Of the 60% that have received compensation, only about half received it through a state compensation statute. The others had to file a lawsuit or pursue special legislation.

• 81% of exonerees who have received compensation through a statute received less than the federal standard of up to $50,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment.

• Only 10 states include provisions for services within their compensation laws.

• To date, only 15 exonerees have had access to support services through compensation statutes.

• Only five states explicitly provide $50,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment. Four additional states plus the District of Columbia do not specify an amount of compensation and in some cases, effectively provide $50,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment. (For example, Vermont provides between $30,000 and $60,000.)

Read the executive summary here.

Download the full report here. (PDF)

Compensation Statutes by State:

• Alabama has a minimum of $50,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration

• California has a maximum of $100 per day (or $36,500 per year) of wrongful incarceration

• Connecticut bases compensation on claims for loss of liberty, loss of earning capacity, physical and mental pain and attorney’s fees and other expenses related to such person’s wrongful conviction

• The District of Columbia asks the court to determine what amount fairly and reasonably compensates the exonerated

• Florida  provides for $50,000 annually with a maximum of $2 million

• Illinois allows for $85,350 for those who served up to five years, $170,000 for those who served between five and 14 years, $199,150 for those who served more than 14 years

• Iowa provides $50 per day (or $18,250 per year) of wrongful incarceration plus lost wages up to $25,000 a year, plus attorney’s fees

• Louisiana provides $15,000 per year of wrongful incarceration, with a maximum of $150,000

• Maine has a maximum of $300,000

• Maryland’s Board of Public Works determines compensation packages for pardoned persons who were wrongfully convicted, and may grant a reasonable amount for any financial or other appropriate counseling for the individual

• Massachusetts has a maximum of $500,000

• Mississippi allows $50,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration with a maximum of $500,000

• Missouri provides $50 per day (or $18,250 per year) of post-conviction confinement

• Nebraska allows $25,000 per year with a maximum of $500,000

• New Hampshire provides a maximum of $20,000 for the entirety of the wrongful incarceration

• New Jersey allows twice the amount of the exoneree’s income in the year prior to incarceration or $20,000 per year of incarceration, whichever is greater

• New York, whose Court of Claims determines what amount will fairly and reasonably compensate the wrongfully convicted person, has no maximum amount

• North Carolina provides $50,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration with a maximum of $750,000

• Ohio allows $40,330 per year in addition to lost wages, costs, and attorney’s fees

• Oklahoma provides $175,000 for the entirety of the wrongful incarceration

• Tennessee has a maximum of $1,000,000 for the entirety of a wrongful incarceration

• Texas allows $80,000 per year of a wrongful incarceration, as well as $25,000 per year spent on parole or as a registered sex offender, plus an annuity

• Utah, where a wrongfully convicted person is eligible to receive for each year he was incarcerated, up to a maximum of 15 years, provides the monetary equivalent of the average nonagricultural payroll wage in the state

• Vermont gives between $30,000 and $60,000 per year the person was incarcerated if filed within three years of exoneration

• Virginia provides 90% of the Virginia per capita personal income for up to 20 years

• West Virginia does not have a maximum amount specified

• Wisconsin provides $5,000 for each year in prison, with a maximum of $25,000 plus attorney’s fees

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The Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice. To date, 245 people nationwide have been exonerated through DNA testing and dozens of states have implemented critical reforms to prevent wrongful convictions.