Question of the Month ~ May 2012
Q. What states have laws to provide compensation for individuals wrongfully convicted of crimes?
According to the Innocence Project, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio and Wisconsin are among the 26 U.S. states with laws to provide compensation for individuals wrongfully convicted of crimes. Michigan would be added to this list under bills (SB 61, HB 4171) introduced earlier this year.
These state laws vary widely. In its December 2009 report “Making Up for Lost Time,” the Innocence Project found that compensation ranged from a maximum total of $20,000 (regardless of the number of years spent in prison) to $80,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment.
Under federal law, those wrongfully convicted of federal crimes receive up to $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration, plus an additional $50,000 for each year spent on Death Row; only five states (none in the Midwest) provide this level of compensation.
Several states deny funding to anyone who falsely confessed, pleaded guilty or was exonerated without the benefit of DNA testing. The Innocence Project also found that only 10 states (including Illinois) provided support services such as job training, educational waivers, housing assistance or health coverage.
Wisconsin’s law is the oldest in the nation, dating back to 1911. The original law allowed any person who served a term of imprisonment but claimed to be innocent to petition a claims board. If the board found it “clear beyond a reasonable doubt” that the person was innocent — and did not contribute to bringing about the conviction — it would determine the amount of compensation (not to exceed $1,500 per year, or $5,000 total). If the claims board found that the level of compensation was inadequate, it could submit a report to the legislature requesting a different amount. The law remains largely the same, although the maximum compensation is now $5,000 per year.
In Illinois, compensation for exonerees was increased in 2008 to a maximum of $199,150, and job search and placement services were added as well. The law also directs local public employment offices to provide a range of assistance to exonerees. Last year, mental health re-entry services were made available.
Under Nebraska’s 2009 law, exonerees are eligible to recover damages of up to $500,000 “found to proximately result” from the wrongful conviction and that have been proved based upon a preponderance of the evidence.
In 2010, Ohio amended its compensatory structure so that individuals could recover 50 percent of the per-year amount owed within 60 days of the determination of wrongful imprisonment.
Post-conviction DNA testing is the primary factor in most modern exoneration cases. Between 1989 and 2010, there were 289 post-conviction DNA exonerations. The average length of time served by those who were found innocent through DNA testing was 13.5 years; 17 of those individuals served time on Death Row. The leading causes of wrongful convictions include eyewitness misidentification and false confessions.
Question of the Month response written by Laura Kliewer, senior policy analyst for CSG Midwest.