NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Compensation For The Wrongly Convicted?

June 18, 2002

Should a person wrongly convicted of a crime and sent to prison for many years be entitled to compensation for the ordeal society put him through -- and for the years of freedom he was denied? Many people would say "yes" -- but most states say to the victim "tough luck."

The question is being freshly debated because of the growing number of instances where innocent convicts are being released on the basis of new DNA evidence. Since 1973, more than 200 men have been deemed wrongly convicted and released from death sentences or lengthy prison terms -- most in the past decade.

  • In every state and federal court, prosecutors and law enforcement officers usually are immune from lawsuits.
  • Only 15 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. government have laws that offer compensation.
  • But the laws rarely are used because they typically demand that anyone seeking compensation first receive an official pardon, or that a court declare them innocent.
  • State legislatures occasionally pass special appropriations for those who have been exonerated -- but such efforts can take years and are subject to government budget processes and political whims.

The federal government sets a compensation limit for U.S. prisoners at only $5,000 -- a limit that dates back to 1948. States that provide for compensation often tie the amount to the number of years served. But Maine has set a maximum limit of $300,000 and the Texas limit is $500,000.

Many of those released have lost their homes and families while they were behind bars and walk out into a world of debt.

Source: Richard Willing, "Exonerated Prisoners Are Rarely Paid for Lost Time," USA Today, June 18, 2002.


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