Compensation for the wrongly convicted has been in the news recently. Just over a week ago, Indiana became the 34th state to pass a compensation law for exonerees—those found to be innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted.
That’s great—it really is. For a state to have a compensation statute is certainly better than not having one. But it begs the question:
How can the government possibly provide redress in the wake of a wrongful conviction?
Archie Williams was released from a Louisiana prison in March 2019 with the help of the Innocence Project New Orleans. It must have felt like a triumphant day for him and his supporters, when prosecutors joined a motion to vacate his convictions and he was exonerated. He was a free man.
The downside? He was convicted in 1983, and spent 36 years in prison for crimes he never committed.
And Williams is not alone; just this year, Clifford Williams, Jr. and Hubert Myers were recently exonerated in Florida after spending nearly 43 years wrongly incarcerated for murder. The average time spent in prison among exonerees is about 9 years, and at least 45 people have been exonerated after spending more than 30 years in prison.
What do we, as a society, owe these individuals?
(Photo: The exoneree stage from the 2019 Innocence Network Conference. Combined, these men and women spent more than 1,070 years incarcerated for crimes they did not commit.)
When I’ve spoken about wrongful convictions to students and members of the general public, a common question I’ve heard is something along the lines of, “Don’t they get a lot of money when they get out?”
The answer, generally, is no. Or, at least, very rarely.
Certainly, we occasionally hear the story about the wrongly convicted winning large civil lawsuits, but success rates are low, and pursuing litigation requires time and resources that are unavailable to many exonerees. The truth is that those cases we hear are the exceptions, not the rule.
The rule is that exonerees get little, if anything, when they’re released.
Indiana’s new compensation law provides $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration to eligible exonerees. A few states offer more; Texas, for example, offers $80,000 per year. But many offer less. Louisiana, where Williams was convicted, offers eligible exonerees $25,000 per year, but the award is capped at $250,000. Even worse, Wisconsin offers only $5,000 per year with a limit of $25,000, and New Hampshire offers a maximum amount of $20,000, regardless of time served. Montana’s law does not provide a monetary award, instead offering educational aid to attend a college or university.
But, for now, let’s set aside the insultingly-low amounts from these last few states, and assume that every law will eventually reach or exceed the level of compensation provided in Indiana’s new law. Even so, is it enough?
When Williams was arrested in January 1983, the world was a fundamentally different place. To put this into perspective, at the time of his arrest, Ronald Reagan was the U.S. President; personal computers, cell phones, and the Internet had technically been invented, in the loosest sense, but not yet the ubiquitous technologies they’ve come to be; the American car market was on the upswing; Michael Jackson’s Thriller was still new; and we were still months away from the first Mario Bros. game and the finale of the original Star Wars trilogy.
The world he recently reentered as a free man, and in which he must now find his way, is changed. Certainly, financial compensation—and a significant amount of it, at that—is well-deserved and would alleviate some of the transitional struggles faced upon reentry. But money is not enough.
Williams, like all exonerees, also carries with him the baggage of (wrongful) incarceration; the physical, psychological, and emotional scars that result from protracted legal struggles and imprisonment. In their wonderful book, Life After Death Row, Saundra Westervelt and Kimberly Cook document the many challenges faced by death row exonerees, though the experiences may translate to anyone who is imprisoned and later exonerated. Their work makes clear that financial compensation, while necessary and helpful, is not sufficient. Instead, “compensation” laws must account for the additional programs and services—often available to parolees and probationers—that exonerees need.
In addition to a monetary award, Indiana’s new compensation law provides access to some additional reintegration programs and resources. Several states do the same. Such services should not be seen merely as additional benefits, but as necessary components of a sound policy. We must conceptualize compensation as more than financial assistance, but as a full-fledged reintegration plan.
For people like Archie Williams, Clifford Williams, Jr., Hubert Myers, and the more than 2,400 other exonerees, it’s the least they deserve.