This week, there were three news reports about compensation to those wrongfully incarcerated. This not about whether the persons were deserving but how compensation can occur in many different manners. Each manner, though, raises questions on how to adequately compensate the wrongfully convicted.
In Colorado, the state legislature is considering enactment of a compensation statute for exonerees. Exonerees Tim Masters and Robert Dewey spoke of the hardships they endured after earning their freedom. For Masters, he was lucky and received a $10 million settlement from a civil lawsuit he filed. But Masters also told reporters that “[m]y case was a rarity,” he said. “There was enough evidence there for me to sue them. In a lot of cases, that’s not an option. When you’re wrongfully convicted, what are your grounds for a lawsuit? It’s hard to prove prosecutorial misconduct. (Prosecutors) are very well protected.” Dewey spent 18 years in prison before being exonerated by DNA testing but told legislators that “Best job you can get is cleaning toilets.”
The proposed legislation, unlike many other statutes, takes into account different situations and awards social services. Exonerees would award $70,000 for each year of incarceration to people who’ve served time in jail or prison for a crime they were later proved innocent of committing. Death row inmates would be entitled to an additional $50,000 for each year served, and wrongfully convicted people would be eligible for $25,000 for each year they were on parole. Those imprisoned wrongfully for at least three years also would be eligible for college tuition, compensation for child support they were unable to pay while incarcerated, attorney fees and fines and other costs associated with their court cases. However, the Attorney General may still oppose the claim. If Colorado’s experience is similar to ours in California, getting compensation could be a tough road.
While statutes are the traditional routes for state compensation, state governments can make their own awards. But this cold lead to inconsistencies in awards. In Georgia, Lathan Word spent 11 years in prison for an armed robbery he did not commit. The victim eventually came forward and admitted he lied. The state legislature awarded him $400,000 through a private bill. But is this enough? How did the state come up with that figure and did they consider providing for social services?
In New Mexico, Stephen Slevin was arrested for DUI in 2005. He was then placed in solitary confinement for two years without going to trial. He was released when his charges were dropped. His civil lawsuit was settled for $15 million. Solitary confinement produces severe mental and physical health effects and Slevin’s award is well-justified. But should this have an impact on the wrongfully convicted who have spent time in solitary confinement? I think so. The majority of exonerees come out of prison as changed persons (to differing degrees). To subject an innocent person to the conditions of prolonged solitary confinement intensifies any trauma suffered and should be taken into consideration for compensation.