A Planet Money story from NPR that we missed last summer (June 2014) entitled, “When Innocent People Go to Prison, States Pay,” provides an excellent overview of compensation for wrongfully convicted exonerees in all fifty states.
Twenty-one states provide no money — though people who are exonerated can sue for damages. Twelve states and the District of Columbia award damages on a case-by-case basis. Another 17 states pay a fixed amount per year of imprisonment.
Amounts vary from $80,000 per year behind bars in Texas, to $5,000 per year in Wisconsin. Florida and six other states match federal compensation of $50,000 per year. Not that any amount could make up for the horror and humiliation of being an innocent person wrongfully convicted and imprisoned, but it is something — especially considering that very few exonerees get any sort of an apology from the state.
Even more appalling, as this article notes, is the fact that states are willing to pony up some limited annual compensation in order to prevent innocent exonerees from suing for much greater amounts. Many states require exonerees to give up the right to sue as a condition of receiving compensation.
At the Innocence Project of Florida our concern is that our state’s compensation law has a loophole known as the “clean hands” provision.
961.04 Eligibility for compensation for wrongful incarceration.—A wrongfully incarcerated person is not eligible for compensation under the act if:
(1) Before the person’s wrongful conviction and incarceration, the person was convicted of, or pled guilty or nolo contendere to, regardless of adjudication, any felony offense, or a crime committed in another jurisdiction the elements of which would constitute a felony in this state, or a crime committed against the United States which is designated a felony, excluding any delinquency disposition;
(2) During the person’s wrongful incarceration, the person was convicted of, or pled guilty or nolo contendere to, regardless of adjudication, any felony offense; or
(3) During the person’s wrongful incarceration, the person was also serving a concurrent sentence for another felony for which the person was not wrongfully convicted.
So not only will a prior felony of petty theft or possession of marijuana make any exoneree, no matter how unjustly he or she was treated, ineligible for compensation, but if the inmate gets caught up in something while in prison–say badly injuring another inmate who has attacked or tried to rape them, they are also ineligible for compensation in the State of Florida.
In the best of all possible worlds, as Voltaire would say, states would show some recognition of and remorse for their mistakes that led to wrongful convictions and incarcerations of innocent men and women. Instead, states begin by putting up roadblocks to protect their convictions, right or wrong, issue no apology to the men and women whose lives they have ruined, and then provide limited compensation to spare them from multi-million dollar lawsuits And Florida adds another insult to the injury with its “clean hands” provision. We ask the convicted to show recognition and remorse for what they have done; it is only fair to expect the states to do likewise.