In our society, people seem to be compensated at the drop of a hat. A man who had purchased a BMW took his new car to a detailing shop for a fancier look and discovered that the car had been partly repainted before it was sold. The man was awarded $4,000 in compensatory damages, and $2 million in punitive damages. A woman was playing golf and hit a shot which ricocheted off railroad tracks that run through the course. The ball hit her in the nose and she was awarded $40,000 in compensation. Yet, Robert Lee Stinson, who was merely 21 when he was wrongfully convicted and spent 23 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, is prevented from receiving more than $25,000, or just a bit over $1,000 for every year that he lost. Something is wrong. Compensation for a genuine accident such as fall injuries is of course acceptable, however wrongful conviction compensation should be much more than any other situation.
In the United State, it is common for those who are exonerated after spending substantial amounts of time in prison for crimes they did not commit, to receive meager compensation. Different states have different standards. The State of New Hampshire caps compensation for the wrongfully convicted at $50,000. In California, standards of proof of innocence for receiving compensation are far too often out of reach and those who have served decades for crimes they did not commit are awarded no compensation for their lost years. While some states put a cap on the amount that wrongfully incarcerated exonerees can be compensated, twenty three states offer no provisions for compensation. In fact, nationwide, 40% of exonerees are not compensated at all.
Our country’s inability to compensate those whose lives have been taken from them is hard to fathom, given the toll incarceration takes on the innocent. Every inmate’s experience is different. For almost all of the wrongfully incarcerated, years lost in prison mean missing the normal milestones in life, like falling in love, marriage, the birth of children, and educational and career advancements. For others, wrongful incarceration can mean years of torture, rape, and beatings. William Richards, who has been wrongfully incarcerated for two decades, has remained physically strong and even the younger inmates respect him and leave him alone. Richards tells of the psychological effects of being stripped of his freedom. His spirit is worn daily by constant degradation by guards and prison staff, the slow but sure fading away of friends, and the inability to work and be productive. He says that he used to dream of freedom, of being able to run, to be out in the open, but now, even when he dreams, he is wearing handcuffs; he always has handcuffs on. So, while the physical damage is often severe, for many it is the psychological damage that is hardest to bear. In fact, we have known for some time that the psychological damage caused by long term wrongful convictions is as severe as the psychological damage suffered by battle warn war veterans. Yet, nationwide, only ten states provide even the most basic social services to help the innocent recover from their time in prison.
The inability to pay those who have lost huge chunks of their lives becomes more troublesome when you consider that prosecutors often block inmate attempts to have DNA tested, unnecessarily increasing the time the wrongfully convicted spend behind bars, usually by decades.
As a society, when we make a mistake, we should be willing to do whatever possible to correct our mistake. Caps on compensation betray a basic ignorance of the damage caused by wrongful convictions. Not one inmate experiences prison the same. Compensating the exonerated with a flat rate, or providing no compensation at all is simply more injustice, heaped on the shoulders of men and women who have already suffered more than their share of injustice. Inadequate compensation also seems to indicate that, although the state is responsible for the criminal justice system, the state should not be held accountable when it fails.